Author: Ingrid Fetell Lee
Publisher: Little, Brown Spark
Publishing Date: September 4, 2018
Pages: 368 (Hardcover)
Do the places where you live and work feel joyful?
In the introduction of her 2018 book, Ingrid Fetell Lee poses a list of questions to help her readers think about whether their surroundings feel joyful. I read the list of questions in the introduction with interest and a growing sense of trepidation.
How often do you laugh?
Um, sometimes…does the kind of laugh matter? Probably not more than a couple of times per day…I don’t count.
When was the last time you felt a true, unfettered moment of joy?
Unfettered? I don’t really do unfettered…joy? I’m not sure.
How highly does your significant other or family value joy?
Probably more than me. Do I really have to consider this? I don’t think I want to know the real answer.
And on through the nine sets of questions on the list…now full of trepidation for what I was about to have to consider about my life, I plunged ahead.
The list immediately follows her short reflection on the journey from the comment made during her first design review in graduate school: “your work gives me a feeling of joy,” through collecting images people identified as joyful, to distilling them into ten “aesthetics of joy” that form the chapters for the book. Along the way, she observes that she “realized that we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it.” (5) Joyful is an exploration of the question “what might happen if we were to reawaken this instinct for finding joy?” (5)
In a pattern that defines the chapters of the book, the first chapter explores the joy-bringing aesthetic of energy, which Fetell Lee characterizes as “vibrant color and light” (8). In this chapter, she explores both psychological and biological advantages tied to bright colors, observing that nearly 50% of participants in a UK color-mood study chose bright yellows and oranges for joy, and no matter the color chosen all were vibrant and saturated. Entwined with the psychology and biology, Fetell Lee describes places where bright color has been used to drastically transform local cultures. In Tirana, Albania, color is credited with dropping crime and transforming the vitality of the city. In New York City public schools, delinquency rates have dropped and graduation rates increased for schools where the charity Publicolor painted the interiors with vivid color. She also plows boldly into the color-aversion prevalent in modern interior decorating (which she terms “chromophobia”), observing that we frequently choose to paint our walls colors that do not “enliven us” (25). She sprinkles the chapter with ideas and recommendations about ways to bring the energy aesthetic into a space, such as repainting a room in a brighter hue
As I read the first chapter, sitting in my living room, something clicked. The whole interior of my house is painted the same shade of taupe it was when we moved in, a shade which I have recently come to recognize as the color of a sky filled with smoke from nearby wildfires. I have complimented it with a gray couch, a neutral colored rug with a geometric pattern, and some espresso accents. No wonder coming home so often feels draining. For years I have thought that the way to have a “classy” or “modern” interior of my house was through neutral colors. Reflecting on the association between color and energy, I realized that my favorite thing about my living room is my kids’ Grimm’s rainbow; I love bright colors, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to decorate with them.
In the subsequent chapters, Fetell Lee discusses the aesthetics of abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration, and renewal. Each chapter has a mix of examples, ideas, and suggestions for how to incorporate the aesthetic into daily life. She also addresses the “tangle between aesthetics and values” (70) both explicitly and implicitly several times. For the abundance aesthetic, she observes that “our aesthetic choices purport to be a window into our inner virtues…In a world overwhelmed by cheap and available stuff, choosing simple, unadorned goods has become a badge of righteousness…Many of us carry the baggage of this equation, unconsciously fearing that our love pattern, texture, and lushness will reveal us to be self-indulgent hedonists.” (70)
The book concludes with worksheets that help the reader embark on a “joy project” by implementing the ideas. Fetell Lee provides examples of her own joy project and also shares general guidance for each aesthetic pertaining to look and feel, signature elements, decor and ambiance, architectural features, fashion, places, activities and experiences, as well as noting things to avoid for each one. The end pages are a helpful summary of the ideas in the book but feel like a helpful extension, rather than just a summary of the content.
By the time I was halfway through the second chapter, I was beginning to seriously doubt whether I even knew how to feel joy (that I didn’t was confirmed by both my sister and my husband), so I started paying attention. The next day I saw some sunflowers and thought “those are pretty” and noticed that there was a very small positive feeling associated with the thought. Over the weeks since I’ve read the book, I’ve noticed more of those moments and have started to pay attention to them. I’m pretty sure there’s hope. I haven’t repainted yet (I’m still trapped inside by the smoke), but I’ve added some colorful decorations and pictures; the room feels more energetic and joyful already.
Regardless of where you are on your personal joy journey (and I hope you are not as bad as me), if you identify with Fetell Lee’s observation that “we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it” (5), then you will benefit from reading this book. After all, as she concludes near the end of the book, “the problem is that without joy, we may be surviving, but we are not thriving. If we rarely laugh or play, if we never have glimpses of magic or flashes of transcendence or bursts of celebration, then no matter how well fed and comfortable we are, we are not truly alive.” (297)