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Universal Joy

November 23, 2018



“On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life.”

~ Ingrid Fettel Lee from her TED Talk How Can We Design More Joy Into Our Surroundings?


It was only two years ago that I found myself nestling into a tent in a backyard in Berkeley for fall break.  In the homeowner’s tiny kitchen, I shared a family style meal with travelers from Arizona, Oregon, Germany, and a few locals; we discussed Donald Trump’s recent election, swapped travel stories, and debated on how we could bridge the ever-increasing divisive gap in America.  The year before I bunked up in a hostel in San Francisco where the family-style Thanksgiving meal was served off the pool table. This brought another round of intriguing and honest conversation.  These are thanksgivings I’ll never forget and ones that brought me great joy and understanding.


Being that I did not travel this Thanksgiving, and am gratefully back to being with family, I wondered about joy, it’s connection to happiness, and how to infuse it more into daily life.


This brought me to Ingrid Fettel Lee’s recent TED Talk. Lee compared happiness, a concept I admittedly focus a lot on, and shared the difference between that and joy:  Joy is different than happiness, which measures how good we feel over time. Joy is about feeling good in the moment, right now. And this was interesting to me because as a culture we are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, and yet in the process, we kind of overlook joy.


For a culture that is increasingly feeling depressed and lonely based on our technological habits, Lee’s understanding of awareness, and the role that being present plays in increasing our ability to recognize joy is paramount to our mental health.  She also found patterns of joy that are communal; a possible solution to bridging the divisive gap in society.


Through interviews, I noticed that there were certain things that started to come up again and again and again. They were things like cherry blossoms and bubbles, swimming pools and tree houses. Hot air balloons and googly eyes. And ice cream cones, especially the ones with the sprinkles. These things seemed to cut across lines of age and gender and ethnicity. I mean, if you think about it, we all stop and turn our heads to the sky when the multicolored arc of a rainbow streaks across it. And fireworks - we don't even need to know what they're for, and we feel like we're celebrating, too. These things aren't joyful for just a few people. They're joyful for nearly everyone. They're universally joyful.


Hearing Lee talk about joy as a universal connector highlights how important this experience can be. What I like about Lee is that she didn’t stop there. She went further and began asking “why” these things are universally joyful and “how” we could observe them more in our daily life. 


What is it about these things that makes them so joyful? I had pictures of them up on my studio wall, and every day I would come in and try to make sense of it. And then one day, something just clicked. I saw all these patterns. Round things. Pops of bright color. Symmetrical shapes. A sense of abundance and multiplicity. A feeling of lightness or elevation. When I saw it this way, I realized that though the feeling of joy is mysterious and elusive, we can access it through tangible, physical attributes, or what designers call aesthetics, a word that comes from the same root as the Greek word, aisthanomai, which means I feel, I sense, I perceive.


And since these patterns were telling me that joy begins with the senses, I began calling them aesthetics of joy, the sensations of joy. And in the wake of this discovery, I noticed something - that as I walked around, I began spotting little moments of joy everywhere I went. A vintage yellow car, or a clever piece of street art. It was like I had a pair of rose-colored glasses. And now that I knew what to look for, I was seeing it everywhere. It was like these little moments of joy were hidden in plain sight.


Now here’s the idea: What brings you joy?  You can share a word, phrase, sentence, short story, picture, or a mix of these options.  I’m going to make a Prezi compilation with all of the responses.


I’ll start: One year ago I stood not too far removed from Skid Row.  I was finishing the last part of Not So Simple; all my hard work was soon to pay off. Surprisingly, traffic on Friday in LA was nonexistent.  I caught the sunset, with the skyline before me, and a wide open road.  This is why I travel.  I took a breath, popped the picture, and let the stillness of this moment, in this city, engulf me.  The smile that spread across my face- the feeling of joy- is something I’ll forever hold close.

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