“Raindrops on roses. And whiskers on kittens.” As soon as we hear Julie Andrews singing those first words of These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things, we feel uplifted. And when design guru Ingrid Fetell Lee undertook a 10-year quest to hunt down the secrets of what gives us joy, she found certain things came up again and again, across the boundaries of age and culture, including kittens and flowers: cherry blossom, googly eyes, ice-cream cones with sprinkles, swimming pools, rainbows, fireworks. These things are “universally joyful”, she says.
Scientists define joy as “an intense momentary experience of positive emotion, one that makes us smile and laugh and feel like we want to jump up and down”, says Fetell Lee. And if you want to decode what really gives you joy, it’s especially that feeling of wanting to jump up and down, she adds.
Fetell Lee also discovered that you can deliberately design joy into your surroundings – it’s not randomly produced. In her new book, Joyful, she describes how you can create more of it. And spot it in everyday life, too. “And the more you tune your eyes to the aesthetics of joy, the more you will see it,” she says.
If you’re decorating, Joyful will make you think more deeply about why you like what you like – and how to consciously arrange your space better. But you don’t have to be doing a major overhaul – a joyful tweak could be as simple as adding greenery. Some of Fetell Lee’s added joy tips will speak to you more, some less, she says.
1 A pop of colour
A flash of bright is enough to make a room zing, says Fetell Lee. “There have been some interesting studies on this on four continents. Research has shown that working in more colourful offices makes you more alert, confident, joyful and friendlier.”
“You don’t have to paint a whole room,” she says. Even just small pops do the trick. There is much debate in colour research, she says, but the main thing is, the brighter, lighter and more saturated the hue, the more effect it has.
2 Feed the birds
Adding more elements of the wild is joy-giving, says Fetell Lee. Living in an an apartment, she hung a bird feeder outside her apartment window. “Now, we have this really wide range of bird life, which brings the whole world to life.” Not only because of the beauty of the birds and their constant movement, but their songs, too. Natural sounds like birdsong are calming, as well as joyful – one explanation is that, when we evolved, birdsong meant safety because no predator was around.
Fetell Lee’s favourite plants are those that move, so they bring a sense of the living inside
3 Think round
Bubbles, balls, balloons are all things people name in their lists of joy – and it’s probably because circles and spheres mean play, as well as being a symbol of harmony. Add more roundness to a room with, for example, a round table (this also makes people more sociable), but also with mirrors, light fittings – and even round flowers like dahlias.
4 Plan in pairs
“Symmetry create a baseline level of order that the brain finds pleasing,” says Fetell Lee. Our eyes and brains are sensitive to symmetry – we detect it super fast. Nature is full of symmetry – and nature brings joy. “You can create symmetry with any objects that share a common property and are arranged together.” For example, a collection of seashells or feathers or even shoes. But the easiest way to create it in a room is with pairs of objects – say, chairs or plants, on either side of a fireplace or another central feature.
5 Play hide-and-seek
Create a hide-and-reveal somewhere in your home, for a flash of joy every time you find it. This works even if you haven’t forgotten it’s there. It could be painting an out of the way place, for example inside your wardrobe or your sock drawer bright yellow or pink. Then, every time you open it, the joy is reactivated.
6 Plant power
It doesn’t matter what kind of plant you choose, says Fetell. “The best plants are the ones you can keep alive!” Work out which way your windows face, then find out which plants will survive in that kind of light.
Even fake plants are not all bad, as your brain probably can’t tell the difference, “as long as you dust them and keep them in mint condition”. Though you don’t get the air-quality benefits, of course.
Fetell Lee’s favourite plants are those that move, so they bring a sense of the living inside: Purple Oxalis, which opens up during the day and closes at night, and the Maranta, which has leaves that rise at night.
Joyful: The Surprising Power Of Ordinary Things To Create Extraordinary Happiness (Rider, £20) is published 6 September