The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness


By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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Make small changes to your surroundings and create extraordinary happiness in your life with groundbreaking research from designer and TED star Ingrid Fetell Lee.

Next Big Idea Club selection—chosen by Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Dan Pink, and Adam Grant as one of the "two most groundbreaking new nonfiction reads of the season!"

"This book has the power to change everything! Writing with depth, wit, and insight, Ingrid Fetell Lee shares all you need to know in order to create external environments that give rise to inner joy." —Susan Cain, author of Quiet and founder of Quiet Revolution

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.



I stood in front of a panel of professors, a full swarm of butterflies in my stomach. As they eyed the small collection of objects on display behind me—a starfish-shaped lamp, a set of round-bottomed teacups, and a trio of stools fashioned from layers of colored foam—their faces were stern, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made a mistake in leaving a promising career in branding to go back to graduate school in design. Then, after a long silence, one professor broke the ice. “Your work gives me a feeling of joy,” he said. The others nodded.

Suddenly, they were all smiling. I felt a wave of relief. I had passed my first review in the industrial design program at Pratt Institute. But my relief soon gave way to confusion. Joy was a feeling, ephemeral and elusive. It wasn’t something we could see or touch. How, then, could such simple objects—a cup, a lamp, a stool—elicit joy? I tried to get the professors to explain, but they hemmed and hawed as they gestured with their hands. “They just do,” they said. I thanked them, but as I packed up my things for the summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about this question.

How do tangible things create an intangible feeling of joy?

At first, the answer seemed unequivocal: They don’t. Sure, there’s a certain pleasure in material things, but I’d always been led to believe that this is superficial and short-lived, not a meaningful source of joy. In all the books on happiness that I’d consulted over the years, no one had ever suggested that joy might be hiding inside my closet or kitchen cabinets. Instead, countless experts agree that the kind of joy that matters is not around us but in us. This perspective has roots in ancient philosophical traditions. The teachings of Buddha, for example, advise that happiness comes only from letting go of our attachments to worldly things, while in ancient Greece the Stoic philosophers offered a similar prescription, rooted in self-denial and rigorous control over one’s thoughts. Modern psychology likewise embraces this inward lens, suggesting that the way to a happy life is to change how we look at the world and our place in it. From mantras and meditation to therapy and habit change, true joy is an exercise of mind over matter, not matter over mind.

Yet in the weeks and months that followed my review, I noticed many moments when people seemed to find real joy in the material world. Gazing at a favorite painting in an art museum or making a sandcastle at the beach, people smiled and laughed, lost in the moment. They smiled, too, at the peachy light of the sunset and at the shaggy dog with the yellow galoshes. And not only did people seem to find joy in the world around them, but many also put a lot of effort into making their immediate environment more delightful. They tended rose gardens, put candles on birthday cakes, and hung lights for the holidays. Why would people do these things if they had no real effect on their happiness?

A body of research is emerging that demonstrates a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health. For example, studies show that people with sunny workspaces sleep better and laugh more than their peers in dimly lit offices, and that flowers improve not only people’s moods but their memory as well. As I delved deeper into these findings, joy started to become less amorphous and abstract to me and more tangible and real. It no longer seemed difficult to attain, the result of years of introspection or disciplined practice. Instead, I began to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I could turn to at any time. I found that certain places have a kind of buoyancy—a bright corner café, a local yarn shop, a block of brownstones whose window boxes overflow with blooms—and I started changing my routines to visit them more often. On bad days, rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I discovered small things that could reliably lift my spirits. I started incorporating what I learned into my home and began to feel a sense of excitement as I put my key into the lock each evening. Over time, it became clear to me that the conventional wisdom about joy was wrong.

Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us.

The liberating awareness of this simple truth changed my life. As I started to share it with others, I found that many people felt the impulse to seek joy in their surroundings but had been made to feel as if their efforts were misguided. One woman told me that buying cut flowers lifted her spirits for days, but she felt like it was a frivolous indulgence, so she only did it on special occasions. It had never occurred to her that for the price of one of her weekly therapy sessions, she could buy a bunch of flowers every other week for a year. Another described how she had walked into her living room after repainting it and felt an “ahhh” feeling—a sense of relief and lightness that made her wonder why she had waited so long to do it. I realized that we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it. What might happen if we were to reawaken this instinct for finding joy?

I needed to know exactly how the physical world influences our emotions and why certain things spark a feeling of joy. I began asking everyone I knew, as well as quite a few strangers on the street, to tell me about the objects or places they associated with joy. Some things were specific and personal: “my grandmother’s kitchen,” “a signed Grateful Dead poster,” “the canoe at the house we used to go to on Lake Michigan.” Some were shaped by cultural heritage or upbringing, like favorite foods or sports teams. But others were neither personal nor cultural in origin. A friend of mine told me about a summer afternoon when she got caught in a sudden downpour on her way home from work. She took refuge under an awning with a motley crew of others who had been caught without umbrellas, making guesses as to how long the storm would last. It passed after a few minutes, and people began to venture out onto the sidewalk, when suddenly a man shouted, “Look!” A brilliant rainbow was arcing across the sky, right over the Empire State Building. People stopped and stared, their wet clothes clinging to them, big grins on their faces.

I heard countless variations on this story. The day was frigid or steamy, the people were friends or strangers, the rainbow was over a concert or a mountaintop or a sailboat. Everywhere, it seems, rainbows are joyful. I began to make a list of things like this, ones that I heard over and over again: beach balls and fireworks, swimming pools and treehouses, hot-air balloons and googly eyes and ice-cream sundaes with colorful sprinkles. These pleasures cut across lines of age, gender, and ethnicity. They weren’t joyful for just a few people. They were joyful for nearly everyone. I gathered pictures of these things and pinned them up on my studio wall. Each day I spent a few minutes adding new images, sorting them into categories and looking for patterns.

One day as I was studying the images, something clicked. I saw lollipops, pom-poms, and polka dots, and it dawned on me: they were all round in shape. Vibrant quilts kept company with Matisse paintings and rainbow candies: all bursting with saturated color. A picture of a cathedral’s rose window puzzled me at first, but when I placed it next to a snowflake and a sunflower, it made sense: all had radiating symmetries. And the common thread among bubbles, balloons, and hummingbirds also became clear: they were all things that floated gently in the air. Seeing it all laid out, I realized that though the feeling of joy is mysterious and ephemeral, we can access it through tangible, physical attributes. Specifically, it is what designers call aesthetics—the properties that define the way an object looks and feels—that give rise to the feeling of joy.

Up until this point, I had always thought of aesthetics as decorative, even a bit frivolous. I had come to design school because I wanted to make things that changed people’s lives for the better. I was obsessed with finding ways to make my products ergonomic, functional, and eco-friendly. And while I enjoyed the classes on how to work with color and texture, shape and movement, I treated these elements as extras, not essentials. This attitude is common in our culture. Though we pay a fair amount of attention to aesthetics, we’re not supposed to care too much about them or put too much effort into appearances. If we do, we risk seeming shallow or insubstantial. How many times have you complimented a fashionable friend, only to hear her say, “Oh, this old thing? It’s just something I threw together!” Yet when I looked at the aesthetics on my studio wall, I realized they were far more than just decorative. They elicited a deep, emotional response.

In all, I identified ten aesthetics of joy, each of which reveals a distinct connection between the feeling of joy and the tangible qualities of the world around us:

Energy: vibrant color and light

Abundance: lushness, multiplicity, and variety

Freedom: nature, wildness, and open space

Harmony: balance, symmetry, and flow

Play: circles, spheres, and bubbly forms

Surprise: contrast and whimsy

Transcendence: elevation and lightness

Magic: invisible forces and illusions

Celebration: synchrony, sparkle, and bursting shapes

Renewal: blossoming, expansion, and curves

What is the relationship between these aesthetics and our emotions? And why do these particular aesthetics stimulate feelings of joy?

These questions sparked a journey that led me to some of the most joyful places in the world. In these pages, we’ll visit a treehouse bed-and-breakfast and a city transformed by color, an apartment designed to prevent aging and a seaside mansion made entirely of spheres. We’ll look at natural wonders, like the opening of the cherry blossoms in Japan, and man-made ones, like the rising of hundreds of hot-air balloons over the Albuquerque desert. Along the way, I’ll share insights from new research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience that helps explain why these places and experiences have such power to unlock joy within us.

But ultimately, Joyful isn’t about seeking joy in the far-flung corners of the world. It’s about finding more joy right where you are. In the following pages, you’ll meet celebrated artists and designers—architects, interior designers, color specialists, gardeners, quilters, DIYers, florists, and even an artist who works with balloons—and learn their secrets for finding and creating joy in every aspect of the physical world. And you’ll get to know real people who are making joy in their homes and communities—cottages and camper vans, living rooms and office cubicles, sidewalks and rec centers—to see how small changes can infuse ordinary objects and places with extraordinary joy.

You have a whole world of joy right at your fingertips. There’s no method you need to learn, no discipline you need to impose on yourself. The only requirement is what you already have: an openness to discovering the joy that surrounds you.

In my years as design director at the renowned innovation company IDEO and in my own practice, as well as through curating the design blog The Aesthetics of Joy, I’ve seen firsthand how aesthetics change people’s attitudes and behavior from the outside in. They reveal why some stores and restaurants bustle with activity, while others stand quiet and empty. And they help us understand why one environment makes people anxious and competitive, while another brims with sociability and tolerance. Think about the way people act in the sterile cabin of an airplane, breaking into fights over three degrees of seat recline and jostling elbows for control of an armrest. Now contrast this with how people behave in the convivial atmosphere of a music festival. Surrounded by vibrant decorations and music, people share food and drink, make space on the crowded lawn for newcomers, and dance with strangers. The power of the aesthetics of joy is that they speak directly to our unconscious minds, bringing out the best in us without our even being aware of it.

How can you tell if your surroundings are joyful or not? There’s no exact standard, but think about these questions:

How often do you laugh?

When was the last time you felt a true, unfettered moment of joy?

What emotions do you feel when you walk into your home at the end of the day? How about when you enter each room?

How highly does your significant other or family value joy?

Who are the most joyful people in your life? How often do you see them?

How often do you find joy in your work?

Do you work for a company that is pro-joy, joy-neutral, or anti-joy? How appropriate is it to laugh out loud at your workplace?

What activities bring you the most joy? How often do you engage in them? Can you do them at or near your home?

How much joy do you find in the town or city where you live? In your specific neighborhood?

What are your “happy places”? Are any within ten miles of your home? When was the last time you visited one?

Every human being is born with the capacity for joy, and like the pilot light in your stove, it still burns within you even if you haven’t switched on the burners in a while. What you hold in your hands is the key to reigniting those joyful flames, one that promises to radically change the way you look at the world around you. At the heart of this book lies the idea that joy isn’t just something we find. It’s also something we can make, for ourselves and for those around us.

You can use this book as a field guide to spotting and savoring more joy in your surroundings, to help you gain a better understanding of why certain things and places light you up inside. And you can also use it as a palette, to design and craft more joy into your world. The chapters build on one another, so the book will probably make the most sense if you read them in order. But don’t let that stop you from jumping to an aesthetic that is calling your name. You may just want to flip back later to see what you missed.

You will probably find that some aesthetics speak to you more than others. If you’re a nature lover, you might find yourself especially drawn to freedom, for example. If you happen to be afraid of heights, then some aspects of the transcendence aesthetic may not be for you. You may also find that the aesthetics that feel best change depending on where you are and what’s going on in your life. A drab office may benefit from an infusion of energy, while the harmony aesthetic can bring joy to a hectic family home. When the kids leave the nest, however, that same home might need some of the play aesthetic to make it feel lively again.

Feel free to mix, match, and layer aesthetics to create an experience that brings you joy. There are no specific rules, but to help you feel your way through, I’ve tried to note where aesthetics are particularly complementary and where they may be in tension. Though some chapters describe particular products that can help bring the aesthetics to life, you don’t need to buy anything expensive to transform a space in a joyful way. In the last chapter, you’ll find a Joyful Toolkit, full of guides and worksheets designed to help you apply the ideas in this book to your own space and your own life.

Too often, we move through the physical world as if it were a stage set, a mute backdrop for our daily activities. Yet in reality it is alive with opportunities for inspiration, wonder, and joy. I hope this book empowers you to see more of these opportunities in the world around you and to seize them. Joy’s power is that small moments can spark big changes. A whimsical outfit might prompt a smile, which inspires a chance kindness toward a stranger, which helps someone who is struggling to get through her day. Even the tiniest joyful gestures add up over time, and before we know it, we have not just a few happier people but a truly joyful world.

In late fall of 2000, a crew of painters covered a historic building in Tirana, Albania, with vibrant orange paint. A shade between tangerine and Tang swallowed up the old façade, spreading over stone and cement indiscriminately, sparing only the windows. The painting began in the morning, and by midday a crowd of onlookers had massed, gaping in the street. Traffic came to a halt. Bewildered, some spectators shouted while others burst out laughing, shocked to see such bold color amid the gray.

For all the commotion, the painting might have seemed a prank by a particularly brazen mischief-maker. But this wasn’t an act of graffiti, and the commissioning artist was no ordinary street vandal. He was the mayor.

Edi Rama won the World Mayor award in 2004 for his stunning success at restoring the capital city of Albania, just four years after he was elected. Visit Tirana today, and you will see few traces of the filthy, dangerous city that Rama inherited when he took office. Broken by decades of repressive dictatorship, and starved of resources by ten years of chaos after the fall of Communist rule, by the late 1990s Tirana had become a haven for corruption and organized crime. Pickpockets and prostitutes loitered on corners. Garbage piled uncollected in the streets. As Rama has described it, “The city was dead. It looked like a transit station where one could stay only if waiting for something.”

The painted buildings were an act of desperation by a mayor faced with an empty treasury and a demoralized populace. An artist by training, Rama sketched the first designs himself, choosing vibrant hues and gaudy patterns that disrupted the bleakness of the urban landscape. The orange building was joined by others as Rama’s project quickly spread throughout the city, enveloping public and private buildings alike.

At first, the reactions were mixed: some citizens were horrified, others curious, a few delighted. But soon after, strange things began to happen. People stopped littering in the streets. They started to pay their taxes. Shopkeepers removed the metal grates from their windows. They claimed the streets felt safer, even though there were no more police than before. People began to gather in cafés again and talk of raising their children in a new kind of city.

Nothing had changed, except on the surface. A few patches of red and yellow, turquoise and violet. And yet everything had changed. The city was alive, ebullient. Joyful.

When I first heard the story of Tirana, it struck me as nothing short of miraculous. There were no massive infusions of capital, no large-scale public works projects. It was as if the city had been revitalized by the sheer power of joy. But how could joy bring an entire city back to life?

It was around this time that I was beginning to research joy, and I found myself asking an even more basic question: What is joy? At first, this was tricky to figure out, as many people have different ideas about joy, and even scientists don’t always agree on a definition. But broadly speaking, when psychologists use the word “joy,” they mean an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion, one that can be recognized by certain telltale signs: smiling, laughing, and a feeling of wanting to jump up and down. While contentment is curled up on the sofa, and bliss is lost in tranquil meditation, joy is skipping, jiving, twirling, giggling. It is a uniquely exuberant emotion, a high-energy form of happiness.

So it’s not surprising that we equate a feeling of energy with one of liveliness, vitality, and joy. Energy animates matter. It is the currency of life, transforming inert material into breathing, beating organisms. Simply to be alive is to vibrate with an essential dynamism. The more energy we have, the more we are able to play, create, love, lead, explore, rejoice, and engage with the world around us. If Tirana had been revived by joy, then perhaps this energetic quality had something to do with it. But where does this joyful energy come from? And how do we get more of it?

We tend to think of energy as something that comes from what we ingest, like the buzz of a cappuccino or a sugary lick of buttercream frosting. But as I thought about it, I realized that energy is all around us, all the time. Most days it flows through our homes unnoticed, but we are constantly awash in its invisible pools and ripples: the lambent particles that emanate from our light bulbs, the sound waves of music from the stereo, the breezes through our windows, and the currents of heat from our radiators. It’s so inconspicuous that we often forget about it until dry winter days, when we touch a metallic doorknob and it startles us with a zingy pop.

Of course, unlike plants, we can’t just absorb it from our surroundings. Yet sometimes, the energy around us does affect the energy within us. How many times have you gone to a party exhausted after a tough week of work, insisting you’ll stay for just one drink, only to perk up once you hear the beat of the music? Or have you ever noticed that it’s easier to get out of bed on sunny days than on gray ones? I began to wonder why some environments have this stimulating effect, and how we might be able to bring more joyful energy into our lives.


From the moment I first started studying joy, it was clear that the liveliest places and objects all have one thing in common: bright, vivid color. Whether it’s a row of houses painted in bold swaths of candy hues or a display of colored markers in a stationery shop, vibrant color invariably sparks a feeling of delight. Bright color adorns festivals around the world, and it almost seems as if the more intense the colors, the more intense the joy. In China, bright dancing dragons usher in the new year, while Brazil’s Carnival dazzles with brilliant feathered costumes. During India’s Holi festival, people dispense with decorations and instead throw handfuls of pure colored powder, creating a stunning spectacle of polychromatic smoke that stains grinning revelers from top to toe.

Though we don’t often think consciously about the connection, it is nearly impossible to separate color and feeling. Our language confuses the two with regularity. Our moods brighten and darken. On a sad day, we might have a black cloud over us or merely feel a bit blue. And when things are going well, we say life is golden. We can see things in a dark light or look on the bright side. While the symbolic meanings of different colors vary across cultures, it seems that brightness is a dimension universally understood to be joyful. Children feel this connection intuitively. In a study of preschool children’s drawings, bright colors were associated with happiness and excitement, while dark colors like brown and black were often used to signify negative emotions. Adults follow suit. Graphic designer Orlagh O’Brien conducted a study asking people in the UK and Ireland to match colors to their emotions. The strip showing the colors picked for joy is full of bright, lively hues, with sunny yellows and oranges making up nearly half the area of the graph.

If bright color buoys our spirits, it’s not surprising that people expend a great deal of energy to obtain the brightest hues. The Dieri tribe of Australian aborigines was known to make an annual pilgrimage on foot each year to gather golden-red ochre pigment from a mine in Bookartoo, a round-trip journey of more than six hundred miles. There were plenty of nearby ochre mines, but the Dieri wanted only the brightest, shiniest ochre for their ritual body paintings. The ancient Romans coveted a purple dye eked, in a stinking process, from the anal glands of a mollusk. During the colonial period, the brightest pigments often became heavily guarded state secrets, such that at least one French botanist risked his life to smuggle a box of red-pigment-producing cochineal beetles out of Mexico. Even today, color continues to inspire great journeys. People make pilgrimages to hike in red-rock canyons and lie on pink-sand beaches, and each autumn the populations of New England and Canada swell as so-called leaf peepers fill B and Bs in search of the most brilliant fall colors.

In an account of his experiences taking the drug mescaline, the writer Aldous Huxley once posited that the ability to see color is superfluous for human beings. “Man’s highly developed color sense is a biological luxury,” he wrote, “inestimably precious to him as an intellectual and spiritual being, but unnecessary to his survival as an animal.” Yet our eyes are adept at distinguishing between subtly different colors, with scientists estimating that we can see as many as seven million distinct shades. Though not as broad a rainbow as that seen by many birds, whose eyes detect colors well into the ultraviolet spectrum, it’s still a staggering range. Doesn’t it seem implausible that we should have such a chromatic bounty for no purpose other than to be tickled pink?


  • "Joy is the most basic building block of happiness, and this mesmerizing book reveals where to find it -- and how to create it. Ingrid Fetell Lee's blockbuster debut will open your eyes to all the places where joy is hiding in plain sight. And it just might cause you to become more joyful too."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg
  • "A completely original treatment of a completely new and original idea: we all have within the power to design joy into our lives. Joyful is an inexhaustible and exciting guide to what makes life good."—Arianna Huffington, New York Times bestselling author of Thrive, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and founder of The Huffington Post
  • "I've never reached out to an author to request their permission to endorse their book...until now. Ingrid Fetell Lee invites us into a dimension of the human experience that was, ironically, hidden to most of us. She shows us how we can mindfully see joy in the simple aesthetics of our surroundings --and it has already changed my everyday life. If I'm feeling blue, I remember to look at the new leaves on the tree outside my window. It is simple but profound. Joyful is irresistibly compelling. The idea of Joyful fills me with joy."—Amy Cuddy, New York Times bestselling author of Presence
  • "This book has the power to change everything! Writing with depth, wit, and insight, Ingrid Fetell Lee shares all you need to know in order to create external environments that give rise to inner joy."—Susan Cain, author of Quiet and founder of Quiet Revolution
  • "Joyful overturns conventional wisdom about happiness: that it comes from within, and that experiences -- not things -- make us happier. Ingrid Fetell Lee's delightful book evokes the same positive feelings she describes. It is full of whimsy, wonder, energy, and joy. I loved it."
    Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness
  • "Joyful is a delightful book with a powerful message: joy is easy to find if you know where to look. In Joyful, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee explains why some experiences are laden with joy, explores how we can cultivate these experiences every day, and shows us how to identify the most joy-inspiring people, places, and objects in our lives."

    Adam Alter, New York Times bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
  • "Joyful reveals the powerful notion that joy can be cultivated to flourish within all of us. This idea can change the world."—David Kelley, founder of the design and innovation company IDEO
  • "Joyful is an invaluable field guide to discovering delight in all its forms. It's hard to look at the world -- and your place in it -- quite the same way again."
    Bianca Bosker, New York Times bestselling author of Cork Dork
  • "A tender and moving book about one of our most important feelings -- joy."—Johann Hari, New York Times bestselling author of Lost Connections
  • "Blending science and tips, Lee shows readers that looking outward -- at flowers in a vase or fireworks in the sky -- can brighten our days."—Real Simple

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
368 pages
Little Brown Spark

Ingrid Fetell Lee

About the Author

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a designer and the founder of the blog The Aesthetics of Joy. She has been featured as an expert on design and joy by outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, PRI's Studio 360, CBC's Spark, and Fast Company, and her 2018 TED talk received a standing ovation.

Lee was formerly Design Director at global innovation firm IDEO, and was a founding faculty member in the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She holds a Master's in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute and a Bachelor's in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University.

Learn more about this author