Where Joy Hides and How to Find It: Ingrid Fetell Lee (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of designer Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TED Talk: Where Joy Hides and How to Find It. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

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It’s 2008, and I’m just finishing my first year of design school. And I’m at my first year-end review, which is a form of ritual torture for design students, where they make you take everything you made over the course of the year and lay it out on a table and stand next to it while a bunch of professors, most of whom you’ve never seen before, give you their unfiltered opinions of it.

So it’s my turn and I’m standing next to my table, everything neatly lined up, and I’m just hoping that my professors can see how much effort I’ve put into making my designs practical and ergonomic and sustainable. And I’m starting to get really nervous, because for a long time, no one says anything. It’s just completely silent.

And then one of the professors starts to speak, and he says, “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.” Joy?

I wanted to be a designer because I wanted to solve real problems. Joy is nice, I guess, but it’s kind of light – not substantial. But I was also kind of intrigued, because joy is this intangible feeling, and how does that come from the stuff on the table next to me?

I asked the professors: “How do things make us feel joy? How do tangible things make us feel intangible joy?” They hemmed and hawed and gestured a lot with their hands. “They just do,” they said.

I packed up my things for the summer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this question, and this launched a journey — one that I didn’t know at the time would take me 10 years — to understand the relationship between the physical world and the mysterious, quixotic emotion we call “joy.”

And what I discovered is that not only are they linked, but that the physical world can be a powerful resource to us in creating happier, healthier lives. After my review, I thought, “I know what joy feels like, but what is it, exactly?” And I found that even scientists don’t always agree, and they sometimes use the words “joy” and “happiness” and “positivity” more or less interchangeably.

But broadly speaking, when psychologists use the word joy, what they mean is an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion — one that makes us smile and laugh and feel like we want to jump up and down. And this is actually a technical thing. That feeling of wanting to jump up and down is one of the ways that scientists measure joy. It’s 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.

So this got me thinking: Where does joy come from? I started asking everyone I knew, and even people I just met on the street, about the things that brought them joy. On the subway, in a café, on an airplane, it was, “Hi, nice to meet you. What brings you joy?” I felt like a detective. I was like, “When did you last see it? Who were you with? What color was it? Did anyone else see it?” I was the Nancy Drew of joy.

And after a few months of this, 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. And seeing them all together, it gave me this indescribably hopeful feeling.

The sharply divided, politically polarized world we live in sometimes has the effect of making our differences feel so vast as to be insurmountable. And yet underneath it all, there’s a part of each of us that finds joy in the same things. And though we’re often told that these are just passing pleasures, in fact, they’re really important, because they remind us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world.

But I still needed to know: 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 “aísthomai,” 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.

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