For many of us, little thought is given to why particular places and interiors make us happy – we just know that they do. Be it bursts of colour or spacious, light-filled rooms, we all have something – or somewhere – that puts us at ease and makes us feel more relaxed. Ingrid Fetell Lee is only too aware of this. A former design director at global innovation firm IDEO and TED lecturer, she has devoted eight years to researching the psychology and neuroscience behind how and why our surroundings can create positive reactions. The culmination of this is "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness". Published by Rider, she has shared an extract of her new book with us.
From the moment I first started studying joy, it was clear that the liveliest places and objects all have one thing in common: bright, vivid color. Whether it’s a row of houses painted in bold swaths of candy hues or a display of colored markers in a stationery shop, vibrant color invariably sparks a feeling of delight. Bright color adorns festivals around the world, and it almost seems as if the more intense the colors, the more intense the joy. In China, bright dancing dragons usher in the new year, while Brazil’s Carnival dazzles with brilliant feathered costumes. During India’s Holi festival, people dispense with decorations and instead throw handfuls of pure colored powder, creating a stunning spectacle of polychromatic smoke that stains grinning revelers from top to toe.
Though we don’t often think consciously about the connection, it is nearly impossible to separate color and feeling. Our language confuses the two with regularity. Our moods brighten and darken. On a sad day, we might have a black cloud over us or merely feel a bit blue. And when things are going well, we say life is golden. We can see things in a dark light or look on the bright side. While the symbolic meanings of different colors vary across cultures, it seems that brightness is a dimension universally understood to be joyful. Children feel this connection intuitively. In a study of preschool children’s drawings, bright colors were associated with happiness and excitement, while dark colors like brown and black were often used to signify negative emotions. Adults follow suit. Graphic designer Orlagh O’Brien conducted a study asking people in the UK and Ireland to match colors to their emotions. The strip showing the colors picked for joy is full of bright, lively hues, with sunny yellows and oranges making up nearly half the area of the graph.
Color is energy made visible. It activates an ancient circuit that lights up with pleasure at the idea of finding something sweet to eat. Now, in a world that contains rainbows of artificial colors, we still feel the same joy, even if a colorful object contains no physical nourishment. More broadly, color is an indication of the richness of our surroundings. It is an unconscious signal not only of immediate sustenance but of an environment that is capable of sustaining us over time. In the words of German painter Johannes Itten: “Color is life; for a world without colors appears to us as dead.” At the core of the energy aesthetic is this: a vibrancy that lets us know our surroundings are alive and can help us thrive.
I think we underestimate the impact of color because we view it as an instrument of decoration, not utility. In the man-made world, color sits on the surface—a thin veneer, a finishing touch. This is reflected in the root of the word “color,” which comes from the Latin celare, “to conceal.” But in nature, color extends through the full thickness of an object. The persimmon is orange equally in skin and flesh; the brown elk is red inside. Color in nature means something: a stage of growth, a concentration of minerals. We think of color as something that hides what’s underneath it, but we respond to color as something that reveals.
"Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" by Ingrid Fetell Lee is published by Rider, £20 hardback