Putting Joy in its Place

Putting Joy in its Place

Googly eyes. A box full of confetti. Warm sunshine. Balloons. Rainbows arcing across the sky. What do these have in common? It’s not a riddle or the beginning of a joke. This a list of items that bring joy, and, simultaneously, a list that is generally deemed inappropriate for adults.

Let’s start off by addressing that stigma. Perhaps some of my wonderful readers are thinking: “Joy is childish; we need function.” Others might even believe that joy just isn’t appropriate right now with COVID-19.

Putting Joy in its Place
IEEE-USA freelance blogger, Jacquelyn Adams, having a laugh with the Queen of joy, Ingrid Fettell Lee.

Ingrid Fetell Lee is no stranger to joy. Her TED talk “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It” has racked up more than 2.5 million views. In her book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, she expounds upon what she refers to as the ten aesthetics of joy, and details the benefits that come from experiencing them. Her book is chock-full of studies that display an increase in productivity, more effective teamwork, and a complete remodeling of atmosphere and attitude. The research demonstrates that whether you find it, create it or simply embrace it — joy yields faster and better results.

One of the first aesthetics Ingrid discusses in her book is energy. This refers to the way our body interacts with the colors and lights around us. One example is how bright fluorescent lights and pale walls suck your soul faster than any dementor. While on the other end of the spectrum, sunny days bring out the social side of a community. In both cases, we feed off our environment. Here’s a couple more examples of how that aesthetic can be applied to change an environment:

  • Philips Lighting put this to the test when they transformed innogy headquarters in Prague. The new system is designed to mimic the warm color of sunlight rather than the cool light that is typical for workplaces. Also, the brightness is adjusted throughout the day to boost energy. Productivity has increased and many employees have started forgoing their afternoon coffee.
  • A nonprofit organization called Publicolor has been using color to alter environments since 1996. Paint Clubs, made up of the most disengaged students, transform a school’s public spaces with vibrant colors. This has resulted in improved attendance, graffiti disappearing, and kids reporting that they feel safer. If you think it is hard to believe some paint can revitalize a school, you should read how Mayor Rama brought Tirara, Albania back to life, and it all started with painting a gray building bright orange.

So let’s say we read Ingrid’s book (seriously, read it now… well, finish reading my blog first, but right after that, get this book), and we accept her research and arguments that the ten aesthetics of joy improve the workplace. That still leaves the question, is it even appropriate to think about joy right now? Is joy possible when our lives are cloaked with the uncertainty of COVID-19? Again, Ingrid responds with a resounding, “YES!” She explains that not only do we benefit biologically when we experience joy, but there is a historical evidence of its intrinsic value as well.

During the Great Depression, there was a column that ran in newspapers all over the country called, “Ask Dorothy Draper.” This famous designer was full of tips on how to bring vibrancy into homes during those hard times. Dorothy was all about color, lots and lots of bright colors. She had solutions for beautifying hand-me-down furniture and all the penny-pinching decorating suggestions. She understood that it’s not only appropriate to create joy during hard times, it’s essential.

Joy is fundamental because it keeps our bodies in balance. We are meant to have moments of heavy exertion, not live with high blood pressure. And if you are anything like me, COVID-19 has involved more than a little stress. However, joy succeeds in breaking up that anxiety and gives our bodies a much-needed chance to rest; it also shifts our way of thinking during this intense time. Joy amid stress triggers our amygdala, and this creates a response in our brain that cultivates a better, more resilient version of ourselves. Life is more than just surviving. So, we need to figure out what we as individuals and a society can do to guarantee we do not let this opportunity for growth go to waste. How do we trigger our amygdalas?

We need contagious joy, and fortunately, people are already working to create just that. Colorful hearts and paint are covering people’s windows. Messages of love are being shared with sidewalk chalk. Music and flashing apartment lights brighten cities. And each day we need to wake up and do it again. We need to find new ways to make each other smile, new ways to draw together while we are apart. Keep cultivating those moments and replicating them because, besides making us better, more effective members of society, it also brings more meaning to our individual lives. Because joy does have a place, and that place is everywhere.


Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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