Joyful (Ingrid Fetell Lee)

In Joyful, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee explores how the seemingly mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day have surprising and powerful effects on our mood. Drawing on insights from neuroscience and psychology, she explains why one setting makes us feel anxious or competitive, while another fosters acceptance and delight — and, most importantly, she reveals how we can harness the power of our surroundings to live fuller, healthier, and truly joyful lives.

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Have you ever wondered why we stop to watch the orange glow that arrives before sunset, or why we flock to see cherry blossoms bloom in spring? Is there a reason that people — regardless of gender, age, culture, or ethnicity — are mesmerized by baby animals, and can't help but smile when they see a burst of confetti or a cluster of colorful balloons?

We are often made to feel that the physical world has little or no impact on our inner joy. Increasingly, experts urge us to find balance and calm by looking inward — through mindfulness or meditation — and muting the outside world. But what if the natural vibrancy of our surroundings is actually our most renewable and easily accessible source of joy?

In Joyful, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee explores how the seemingly mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day have surprising and powerful effects on our mood. Drawing on insights from neuroscience and psychology, she explains why one setting makes us feel anxious or competitive, while another fosters acceptance and delight — and, most importantly, she reveals how we can harness the power of our surroundings to live fuller, healthier, and truly joyful lives.


Show notes

In this episode, you’ll learn...

  • Why research shows a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health

  • That joy can be intangible — a memory, a mood — but also accessible through tangible, physical attributes, which are what designers call aesthetics: the properties that define the way an object looks and feels can give rise to a feeling of joy

  • Ingrid Fetell Lee’s 10 aesthetics of joy:

  • ENERGY – vibrant color & light

    • The liveliest places in the world all have one thing in common: COLOR

    • Chromophobia is fear of color – fear of making a choice, a mistake, and having to live with it

    • LIGHT is color’s power supply

    • Create energy by getting color and light to play together by:

      • Lightening the largest surfaces – cabinets, walls, floors, counters

      • Bringing color in through bigger pieces – furniture, rugs – or smaller pops through decorative pieces, accents

      • Choosing color based on what you like, and how it makes you feel, not what others might think

  • ABUNDANCE – lushness, multiplicity & variety

    • Joyful places often embody abundance – that “kid in a candy store” feeling, like carnivals and circuses, flea markets, ice cream cone covered in sprinkles, a shower of confetti

    • Abundance can have a huge impact in small doses – stripes, polka dots. A little thing repeating many times creates a burst of joy much bigger than the individual piece could create

    • Abundance can come from many directions – we have as many as 12 to 21 senses!

    • We can seek out abundance in sensation to enliven our senses by:

      • Creating food that is as beautiful as it is filling

      • Considering texture – in food, decoration, clothes, surfaces

      • Calling on color – pens, decoration, clothes

      • Using smell – candles, essential oils, hand cream, perfume, food smells

  • FREEDOM – nature, wilderness & open space

    • In a moment of joy we say we are “carefree, freewheeling, footloose and fancy free…”

    • The most liberating places are often found in nature, according to studies that Ingrid cites, and almost any view of nature has positive effects

    • Incorporate nature — and the shapes and textures of nature — in your home and life to experience the joy of this aesthetic:

      • Spend time in nature!

      • Create an open feel in your home by taking down nonstructural walls or, if that’s out of reach, decrease number of furniture in rooms, scaling down sizes, removing stuff

      • Incorporate nature motifs in decoration and details (fabrics, patterns, photos)

      • Listen to recordings of nature sounds

  • HARMONY – balance, symmetry and flow

    • There is a deep simple joy in seeing things move in perfect harmony

    • Order comes as a joy in contrast to what it opposes: chaos and disorder

    • Disorderly environments are linked to feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, depression

    • To create harmony:

      • Gather like with like to make your own collections – repeating colors, shapes, or textures in a room or small space

      • Create symmetry where none exists by defining a line – the center of a wall, either side of a couch – and center items on this axis, rugs, lamps, art, etc.

      • Lay things out in an orderly fashion – your workspace, cooking station, crafting area, etc.

  • PLAY – circles, spheres & bubbly forms

    • Play is our greatest means of accessing delight

    • Unlike many of life’s activities, the only metric for the “success” of play is how much joy is produces!

    • Yet, as we age, we are told to “quit playing around”

    • Round objects act as play cues – they are friendly, approachable shapes that engage our brains

    • Consider round and ball-like elements to incorporate the play aesthetic:

      • Houseplants with rounded rather than spiky leaves

      • A circular or elliptical table rather than a square one

      • Ball-like accents – vases, votives

      • Playful curves in offices, art, furnishings, accessories

  • SURPRISE – contrast & whimsy

    • Joy has a way of showing up when we least expect it – especially powerful during times of sorrow or stress

    • Surprise interrupts what is happening, turns our attention, highlights something good, pulls us into the now and also somehow widens our perspective to what is possible. This is its vital purpose – to quickly redirect our attention

    • While the experience of surprise might be fleeting, surprises can have lasting effects if they put us on an upward trajectory again or give us some perspective or prompt us to look at things differently, such as:

      • Colorful knit sleeves on parking meters – graffiti knitting!

      • Patching crumbling holes in buildings with Lego blocks

      • Small gardens in potholes

    • Our brains are wired to notice harmony AND contrast, which is why surprise works so well with the aesthetics of harmony – and why these things, like the pothole gardens, stand out and bring us so much joy

    • Look for joy in surprise – and create it for others!

  • TRANSCENDENCE – elevation & lightness

    • Elevation can also change our perspectives, clear our minds and open space for joy, enabling us to disconnect, feel free, and focus more on the big picture

    • We associate upward lines as positive and downward sloping as negative

    • Simply look at the sky! Daydreaming, letting our mind wander as we focus elsewhere, activates two parts of our brains which were thought to oppose each other: the default network (internally focused thought) and the executive network (tackling demanding tasks and external goals).  This engagement is similar to creative thought, which is why daydreaming can help us come up with new ideas and think through big ideas in the long-term without getting stuck on details

    • Looking up also creates a feeling of transcendence, that we’re connected to a divine being or simply more peaceful and calm, that everything is all right

    • Glimpses of transcendence are vital in giving our lives meaning and purpose; access it through:

      • Awe – vast settings, beautiful architecture, huge trees, the sky before a storm)

      • Adding lightness – light colors, lighter mass objects, translucent

      • Adding height – draw attention up in your home with moldings or beams, light fixtures or sculptures

      • Accentuating height – use lower slung furniture or lighter colors ceilings

  • MAGIC – invisible forces & illusions

    • The experience of magic or enchantment stays with us. We love uncanny coincidences, running into friends in foreign cities, when the bus pulls up right as we arrive at the stop.

    • Magic imbues life with a deeper sense of meaning, weaves a story where there’s an ultimate purpose, that the universe is looking out for us, and it can fuel our optimism

    • Magic is all around us if we look for it – and it’s why we love Disney, or crystals, or consulting a psychic, or magic shows

    • How to court magic and enchantment:

      • In nature: look for fireflies, catch the wind with a kite or sailboat, swim or surf, watch a lightening storm, sleep under the stars, add wind chimes or prisms to your home

      • In the “man made” world: enjoy magic shows, optical illusions, or art installations that challenge our perception of reality

  • CELEBRATION – synchrony, sparkle & bursting shapes

    • Celebrations mark the pinnacles of joy in our lives

    • They are communal, they allow us to pause, set aside difference to come together, and forget our anxieties for a while

    • They have emotional resonance; people who celebrate regularly with others are happier than those who keep their good news to themselves; couples who celebrate each other’s good news are happier in their relationships

    • Create the celebration aesthetic through:

      • Physical closeness with others

      • Attire can unite us – fancy dress at a party; sports fans wearing their team’s jersey

      • Music and dancing engages our bodies in the act of celebration – think of weddings and festivals

      • Enjoying bursting shapes as bursting energy and the outpouring of joy – champagne corks, firecrackers

      • Incorporating sparkle and reflective materials to wake up the eye

      • Oversize objects – big balloons, big checks, big bows on cars, giant stuffed animals at carnivals – big things express big joy!

  • RENEWAL – blossoming, expansion & curves

    • The joy of renewal – like spring after a long hard winter – reminds us that time is cyclical.  Suffering doesn’t last forever, and joy is a wave we ride up and down, which sometimes means finding our way up when we’ve been knocked down.

      • We have come to see ourselves as separate from nature, we see time as linear rather than cyclical. 

      • When time is linear we view the future as blank and uncertain; it’s hard to trust that joy with return.  Cycles – seasons, periods of struggle – come to an end, and bring new possibility

    • Lots of things can prompt the joy of renewal:

      • Big things like ending an addiction or near-death experiences, the birth of a child

      • Small things like a new haircut, a fresh load of laundry, a hot shower

      • Remembering time is cyclical by reconnecting with nature: visit farmer’s markets to see what is in season, enjoy flowers’ transient beauty

  • We are the artists of our world, and our palette is full of aesthetics of joy! Which will you add to your canvas?

Bookmarked activity

Build Your Own Joyful Toolkit

Reflect on where the joy in your life comes from, and how you might create more of it.

The first step is to “Find Your Joy” by keeping a Joy Journal for a week, or even a few days (click here for a template, or try out Ingrid’s Joyfinding worksheet).  Use it to pay attention to any time you feel a sense of joy. You can also include joyful memories. For each moment, write down where you are, whom you are with, what you are doing, what sights sounds, aromas, textures, or flavors are associated with your joy.

Then, at the end of the week, look for patterns.  You can identify where the different sources of joy in your life come from and learn how to move from inspiration — what brings you joy — to action: creating more joy in your daily life. Here’s another worksheet for inspiration!

Share your takeaways

If you’ve read this book, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know if you kept a Joy Journal or had any aha moments about where your joy comes from or how to create more of it by emailing us at You can also leave us a voicemail at 929-515-BOOK (2665).


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