How to Design Joy Into Your Home

Author Ingrid Fetell Lee on joy as an essential emotion even, or maybe especially, in our current moment.

May 16, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

I’ve always thought of myself as a happy person, prone to laughter and equipped with optimism. But that has been tested by these last eight weeks. I'm grateful for my twice weekly, socially-distanced strolls through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In nature I've been able to find a temporary freedom from the constricting conditions of the lockdown: I pick up and examine leaves, I stop to listen to birds, and for a moment I regain a sense of cheer.

We all have environments that spark joy in us—music stadiums, parks, museums, our mothers’ kitchens—ones we’ve been unable to access lately. But what if we could tap into pockets of joy elsewhere, in other places? Even hiding in the cabinets of our own homes. Author Ingrid Fetell Lee thinks we can.

Back in 2018, Lee, then a design director at IDEO, wrote a book drawing from her multidisciplinary interests in neuroscience, landscape theory, and architecture (among others). Joyful explores how and why everyday objects and spaces have the capacity to stimulate deep—often outsized—emotional responses in us. It opens with Lee describing a few universally joyful things (think: confetti, balloons, fireworks), and what they had in common: they shared certain color palettes for instance, shapes, or a sense of lightness or levitation. Lee used these characteristics to form ten chapters on the aesthetics (energy, abundance, renewal, to name a few) of joy.

The chapter on Energy begins with how bright, cheery colors in public spaces invigorated the economically and culturally depressed city of Tirana, Albania. Fascinatingly, Lee goes on to argue that the dismissiveness of bright color and subsequent celebration of minimalism are underlined by ethnic and racial prejudice. (She quotes Goethe in Theory of Colours: “Savage nations, uneducated people, and children typically prefer bright colours.”) In the chapter on Play, we learn how the shapes of our built, work environments (rigid, angular) have taken us further and further away from curving, pastoral landscapes (and subsequently, playfulness, sensuality, and joy).

Much of what Lee writes has practical implications for our homes: round shapes are universal play cues (pom-poms are fun!) and geometric configurations of similar-shaped or -sized items can transform anything into a source of visual delight (a gallery wall is often greater than a sum of its parts!).

Because Lee believes joy, by way of our things and dwellings, to be energy- and immunity-giving, I reached out to ask how she's been finding it despite, or perhaps in spite of, our current moment.

Arati Menon: Is there room for joy in our lives right now?

Ingrid Fetell Lee: One thing that’s helpful is understanding the distinction between joy and happiness. From a psychological perspective, happiness is a broader self-evaluation about how we feel about our life: how we feel about our work, our health, do we have meaning and purpose. Happiness is big—and vague.

Joy is a simpler, more momentary experience of positive emotion, and you can access it at any time—even at a funeral! It’s harder to be happy right now but if we don’t allow moments of joy because we feel guilty, we’re missing out. Research shows that when we experience even small moments of joy it resets our cardiovascular response to stress, it helps us cope better, and eventually bounce back from crises.

AM: Is joy inside of us, or in the world outside?

IFL: When I look at literature on joy, there’s been a very strong bias towards emphasizing internal, introspective techniques like yoga and meditation for accessing joy, and a certain dismissiveness of the idea of the physical world as a source, which is considered frivolous. The reality is much more nuanced. Babies’ cognitive abilities don’t develop in a vacuum; they respond to stimulus, through dialog with the environment, and that doesn’t go away as adults. A beautiful painting, a scent, a yellow sofa…there are so many ways our senses react to the physical world.

AM: Much of that joyful physical world is off-limits at the moment though...picnics in the park or travels to inspiring locations...can our homes alone make up for that?

IFL: Earlier this year I launched a course online called 'Design a Joyful Home.' As it turns out, the timing was uncanny. When our movement is curtailed, home is all we’ve got—and they can be a refuge from the stresses of the world and nurture our dreams or they can make us feel stuck and anxious. The course aimed to teach people to harness their intuition for what feels good and apply it to their space. Our homes are the foundation of our wellbeing, but we often don’t look at them that way.

Ingrid Fetell Lee

AM: How would you advise our readers to bring joy into their homes?

IFL: Now that we understand the importance of our homes, it’s about taking time to make it where we want to be. The first thing to do is make it more of a layered landscape. Think of all the chairs you sit in on a daily basis: in a café, subway, office, home, bar stool. Then think of all the textures, the scents, and the sounds. We are missing those now, so we must bring some of that sensorial variety into our homes. Research shows the human brain is extremely sensitive to detecting contrasts, and we delight in noticing it.

AM: How can one create an environment of variety and abundance without buying new things?

IFL: The abundance aesthetic is defined by a layering of color, texture, and pattern, but you don’t need a lot of stuff to achieve it. Sometimes, it's just about shaking up stagnant areas of your home, or moving things from one place to another, like a sheepskin rug from the floor to the chair you work in, or throw pillows or art. Maybe it’s redoing your spice drawer or getting a little bolder with your choice of consumables—buying a brightly colored soap, or blue candles instead of white. Bringing a little greenery into your space can be so powerful in helping quiet those parts of your brain associated with stress and anxiety.

AM: Is there a chapter in the book that speaks to you more today?

IFL: In times of uncertainty, Harmony is a great aesthetic to turn to for a sense of control, because we can control the world inside our homes. Research has found that when patients with PTSD played Tetris, they were soothed by the simple, repetitive act of fitting blocks snugly together, and less likely to have intrusive memories. Try color-coding books or fixing a broken chair—broken things have a way to remind us of a disordered space, of forces of decay that move through our lives. I just went through the house and tightened loose knobs and pulls. We don’t think of our unconscious sensorial reaction to that smallest of instabilities.

AM: What’s next for you?

IFL: I’ve just started a Facebook group called the ‘Joyspotters Society’ to encourage people to notice their surroundings. The theme is Renewal, like the book’s last chapter, and we have people posting pictures of things regenerating in nature. It’s a wonderful reminder that even though we’re static, nature is changing and moving—and joy will return.

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.