Find More Joy at Work to Spark Creativity and Connection

Three people laughing at table while on computers

What is joy? It’s often confused with happiness, which is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives overall. Joy is simpler and more immediate, says Ingrid Fetell Lee. It’s an intense and discrete moment of positive emotion—those kinds of moments that make us feel a little bit more alive. 

Ingrid is a designer, the founder of The Aesthetics of Joy, and author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. She believes misunderstanding of joy has contributed to our hesitation to bring more of it into our lives. Deeply rooted cultural narratives about joy being unprofessional and frivolous have also held us back from embracing the emotion at work. But over the more than 12 years she’s spent studying joy, Ingrid’s found good reason—and plenty of scientific evidence—to suggest we prioritize seeking moments of joy. 

In this Creative Confidence Podcast conversation, Ingrid shares why joy is important during challenging times, how it improves our performance and capacity for creativity, universal elements that make up the aesthetics of joy, and how to overcome common barriers to joy.


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The positive effects of joy

Joyful moments feel good. On the surface, it’s obvious that we’d want more of that. But Ingrid says it goes much deeper. She outlines three important positive effects of joy. 

1. Aids in resilience

“We’re not supposed to be happy all the time,” she clarifies. “But we can access little moments of joy to punctuate challenging times and aid our resilience.” 

Joy helps us grow from trauma instead of being dragged down by it. For example, a study of 9/11 survivors showed that when they allowed little moments of joy as one of their coping mechanisms, they actually coped better. They used what psychologists call an adaptive coping style to grow from a traumatic experience.

2. Improves performance

When we allow ourselves to feel moments of joy it helps us sleep better, lowers our stress levels, enables us to connect with others, and leads to more capacity for creativity and better performance at work. Studies show doctors in a state of joy come to a correct diagnosis more quickly, negotiators are more likely to reach win-win agreements, and we’re up to 12 percent more productive in a state of joy. That’s an extra hour each day! Ingrid’s book Joyful cites these studies on the effects of joy and many more.

3. Gives us energy for change

Ingrid references activist and writer Audre Lorde, who says that every oppressive force suppresses energy for change. Experiencing moments of joy is part of fueling energy for change and fighting oppression. Sharing in joyful moments holds us together and helps us overcome differences and find unity. 

“While we’re trying to make change, staying joyful can help us because it’s a propulsive force,” Ingrid explains. “Joy helps us understand why it matters to be alive, why we care, and why it's worth building a world that’s better.”

We often feel like we should deny ourselves happiness if others are struggling, but “when we allow ourselves a little bit of joy, it helps us show up better for others.”

 


“Joy helps us understand why it matters to be alive, why we care, and why it's worth building a world that’s better.”
Ingrid Fetell Lee


 

The aesthetics of joy and cultural influences

Ingrid’s exploration into this ephemeral feeling began when she was studying industrial design and her professors said that, while they couldn’t explain why, her work gave them a feeling of joy. Fast forward many years later, and she identified 10 elements—including roundness, symmetry, lightness, and bright colors—that most of us agree spark a joyful feeling.

Colorful mosaic of joyful things

Dubbed The Aesthetics of Joy (and explored in more detail in her popular TED Talk), these elements are universally agreed upon for the most part. But Ingrid says there are important differences in the way we define and experience this emotion. 

Think about our relationship to joy in three layers:

    • Personal — How our individual differences and lived experiences shape what we find joyful. For example, the pattern of the wallpaper in your grandma’s kitchen.
    • Cultural — The people and community we grew up around. For example, a food that is delicious to you may seem strange to someone else. 
    • Universal — Evolved patterns that we see around the world. For example, bright colors.

    While bright color is joyful the world over, different colors have different meanings depending on where you are. Red is associated with luck in China, whereas it might be associated with aggression or intensity in the United States. 

    Understanding how to create joy for others requires us to broaden our understanding of it beyond our own personal and cultural experiences.


    Common barriers to joy and how to overcome them

    Once we have a better understanding of joy and how to spot it, what gets in the way of us experiencing joy? Ingrid noted four barriers holding us back, as well as ways we can begin to recognize and work past them. 

    Cultural bias

    In 1810 German poet Goetha wrote in his Theory of Colours that children and “savage nations” love color and people of refinement avoid them. The idea of vibrant color as a mark of being primitive or juvenile can be expanded to many of the aesthetics of joy. These are things that, while joyful, we don’t typically associate with being professional or mature. Hence, many modern office buildings and “work appropriate” clothes now occupy a narrow range of gray, black and beige tones. 

    There’s a colonialist implication here, Ingrid says. Western white cultures did a lot to repress emotion and ended up sucking a lot of joy out of our lives at the same time. 

    To reclaim joy and the things in our lives that feel joyful, we have to break and unlearn some of those entrenched and unconscious associations that we’ve carried with us in our cultural inheritance. 

    Lack of awareness

    What brought you joy as a child? If you haven’t thought about it in a while, how do you plug back in to those things? It’s hard to spark joy if you don’t know where the sparks come from. 

    Start self-reflections and conversations around joy to raise your awareness. Catch yourself smiling, pay attention to moments that feel happy, ask what’s happening when you hear laughter at work. 

    Limited time and space

    Sometimes we know what brings us joy, but we still don’t make time and space for it. Why might that be? Are you too busy to prioritize it? As a leader, how might you hold joy space for your team? 
    Modeling the behavior you wish to encourage can be effective as a leader. Hold space for vacations and commit to taking time off yourself. Intentionally bring moments of joy into work spaces to show that you value it. The nonprofit Publicolor paints schools in bright colors to show students that these should be places full of joy.

    Colorful Publicolor Wall in Harlem

    MS 7 in East Harlem. Source: Publicolor

    Toxic positivity

    “We feel joy in proportion to our ability to feel our sorrow,” Ingrid says. If we make joy or happiness the only emotion that’s acceptable in the workplace, that’s a problem. All the wellbeing effects we get from genuine joy don’t apply when it’s forced or faked. 

    To bring genuine joy into the work space, you have to also welcome challenging emotions at the same time. Encourage people to share authentically

    “Joy can be a conduit to vulnerability,” Ingrid believes. Brené Brown calls joy one of the most vulnerable emotions—sharing what makes us happy simultaneously shows how we might be hurt or sad if we lost it. Getting vulnerable in turn builds trust among teammates and fortifies connections. 

     


    “Joy can be a conduit to vulnerability.”
    Ingrid Fetell Lee


     


    What you can do to find a little joy today

    How might you bring a small, discrete moment of happiness into your day? Try one of these methods: 

      • Reflect on some things that brought you joy as a child with a 5-minute journaling exercise.
      • Download Ingrid’s Joyspotting guide at aestheticsofjoy.com to experiment with finding and tuning into little moments of joy around you. 
      • Begin your next team meeting with a joy warm up. Ask each person to grab one item near them that feels joyful and show it. 

      When we deny joy or push it to the side, we’re cutting off an important part of our humanity. “We think of joy as something extraneous or a luxury,” Ingrid says. “But in fact it’s an essential part of what it means to be human.” 

      Try out these two warm-ups from Ingrid to help you and your team unlock creativity and tune into the physical feeling of joy.

       


      Learn exercises and practical skills to help you and your team overcome the common barriers to creativity, learn from failure, find inspiration, and get unstuck in our online course Unlocking Creativity.

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