Interview: Ingrid Fetell Lee.
Right now, I can't learn enough about color and scent—I'm looking for anything I can read, see, touch, learn, or listen to on these fascinating subjects. Plus I'm always thinking about happiness and human nature.
So when I got an advance copy of Ingrid Fetell Lee's new book, I couldn't wait to read it. Just the title was enough to spark my enthusiasm: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.
Ingrid is a Brooklyn-based designer and writer whose work focuses on the way that design affects our health and happiness.
She has more than twelve years of experience in design and branding, most recently as Design Director of IDEO's New York office, having led design work for Target, Condé Nast, Eileen Fisher, American Express, Kate Spade, Diageo, Pepsico, and the U.S. government, among others.
About herself, she notes, "loves pancakes, polka dots, and rainbow sprinkles, and has an extensive repertoire of happy dances for any occasion."
I couldn't wait to talk to Ingrid about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Ingrid: Happy dances! My husband and I often do a happy dance on Friday evenings to mark the start of the weekend. We also do them when one of us has good news. It sounds silly, but there’s science to suggest it works. Research shows that celebrating good news with someone else can deepen relationships by increasing our confidence that they will be there for us in hard times, not just in good ones. And dancing with other people can bring about a state that scientists call synchrony, which elicits feelings of unity, generosity, and a desire to be helpful. Not to mention that happy dances are silly and fun!
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Ingrid: That true happiness is really a sum of many smaller moments of joy. When I was younger, I associated happiness with large milestones or goals in life: getting into the right school, finding a good job, getting married, having children. Reaching some of these milestones has brought me happiness, and some I haven't reached yet—but now I understand that you can have all the “right” things happen in life and be unhappy, and you can have big disappointments and still be extremely happy.
My research on joy has shown me that the small daily joys matter a lot more than we think. A picnic in the park with a friend, a deep belly laugh, or taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses: these simple moments of delight have powerful effects that linger long after the moment has passed. Small sparks of joy can mitigate the physical effects of stress, open our minds, and connect us to others. They can even make us more resilient, by sparking positive feedback loops that promote long-term wellbeing. Though the moments themselves seem small, they have ripple effects that do end up influencing our happiness on a broader scale.
The reason this is important is that while the big elements of happiness are often out of our control (we don’t always get the dream job, and we don’t know when we’ll meet “the one”), joy is always accessible to us. Turning our attention to the joys of the moment absorbs us in the present, focusing us on the parts of our lives that are good, not the ones we’d like to change. We notice more moments of joy—in fact, research shows that people in a state of joy are actually more attuned to positive stimuli on the periphery of their visual field—and begin to include others in our joy. When we focus on joy, happiness finds us.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Ingrid: I've found that people are often surprised to learn just how deeply our physical environment affects our emotions and wellbeing. The field of psychology has historically focused almost exclusively on the internal factors that shape our emotional experience, in the form of thoughts, behavioral patterns, and neural chemistry. Almost no attention has been paid to environmental factors. So, if we are feeling sad or anxious, we’re conditioned to believe this is due to either our genetics or our learned responses. We never look around us and think that there might be something in our surroundings that is making us uneasy.
Yet when you look at the research, there are many well-documented links between environment and emotional wellbeing. One example that has gained visibility in recent years is Seasonal Affective Disorder, which highlights the link between light and mood. But light therapy has actually been shown to be effective in treating non-seasonal depression too, so effective that in some studies the results are comparable to those achieved by anti-depressants. (We rarely hear about this research, perhaps because it's more lucrative for pharmaceutical companies to fund studies about drugs than about light.) Other research shows that employees with sunnier desks sleep better and are more physically active in and out of the office than those without windows, and that just changing the lightbulbs in a nursing home can reduce both depression and cognitive decline among Alzheimer’s patients.
These effects can come from very subtle aspects of the environment, ones we may not be conscious of, such as symmetry and shape. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that showing people pictures of visually disordered, asymmetrical environments increases the likelihood that they will cheat on a test. And fMRI studies have shown that when people are shown pictures of sharp, angular objects, a structure in the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and anxiety, lights up, but stays quiet when people look at curved versions of the same objects.
I've found that many people have an intuitive understanding of these effects but have been taught to tune them out. Or worse, made to feel that their impulses toward color and light, symmetry and curves are frivolous. What has surprised me most about this work is how validated many people, especially women, feel to know that these sensations are a real, measurable contributor to their wellbeing. I even heard from one woman who told me she cried with relief after watching my TED talk, because she had so often been judged as childish for her vibrant home and whimsical outfits. My hope is that as awareness rises of the role that environment plays in emotional wellbeing, more people will feel permission to seek out joy in their surroundings, and as a society we will recognize that mental health is a function of both what’s in us, and what’s around us.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Ingrid: It’s not a motto, exactly, but I do have a phrase that I come back to again and again: “Remember what you love.” When I get overwhelmed by everything I need to do, or feel anxious about what I’m trying to say or how people might receive it, this phrase helps remind me that everything I do at root stems from the love I feel for this beautiful, diverse world, for the people in it and the extraordinary joy that can be found in even its ordinary corners. I do what I do because I want to share that love with others. When there’s a task I really don’t want to do, “remembering what I love” helps me see the bigger picture. An email or errand that normally might feel like a chore becomes an extension of that love; it enables it and is connected to it .
This phrase also helps me conquer some of the anxiety I feel about speaking in public. If I focus on the idea that I have to stand on a stage and talk about my work, I get nervous. But if I "remember what I love," that feeling cuts through the anxiety and helps me see getting on the stage as an opportunity to share my excitement and joy with others. I think this phrase is one of the things that kept me working on Joyful for ten years, even during times when I was really unsure if I’d be able to finish it. Every time I felt lost, “remembering what I love” brought me back to the fundamental reasons why I wanted to write the book, and reinvigorated my desire to see it through.
“Remember what you love” is also really helpful in relationships. In the day-to-day of a marriage, a work partnership, or a friendship, it’s easy to let small disagreements or annoyances take over. When you remember what you love about the other person, it reconnects you to the reasons you chose to be in this relationship, and it becomes easy to let some of the small things go. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but this also applies to one’s relationship to oneself. As someone who can be quite hard on myself, I think it’s not a bad idea to occasionally balance out the critical voices by “remembering what you love” about yourself too.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Ingrid: It’s not a habit exactly, but as a city dweller I’ve found that getting out into nature regularly is important to my sanity and wellbeing. When I’m in the city, this means taking a walk to Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, an old pier that was converted a few years ago into a meadow. I sometimes bring a notebook and spend an hour there working on an essay or a talk. But I also enjoy getting out of the city as often as possible, to the beach or for a hike, or to go snowshoeing in the winter!
Having houseplants brings a little of that nature into the house, and creates a new habit by necessity: watering once or twice a week. I find I really enjoy this task—checking on them all, dusting their leaves and removing spent flowers, and seeing what new growth has appeared. Even if I have a million other things to do, the plants need me, and that brings me back into connection with the natural world.
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