BOOKLOOK°04: The Aesthetics of Joy

Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us.
— Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Ingrid Fetell Lee

When my family and I first moved to the Bay Area in 2004, one of the first places my relatives took us was at Pier 39, at the Fisherman’s Wharf. I didn’t have a clue as to what it was but I remember feeling slightly overjoyed by the abundance of sensorial richness around me, good enough to drown out homesickness for a bit.

I thought of the Fisherman’s Wharf after I finished reading JOYFUL: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee, in the midst of a crushing need to travel and experience new places.

The book is an ode to the aesthetics of joy, the kind that doesn’t just live within the boundaries of our consciousness but actually in physical, tangible things. I was hooked, because there’s nothing like reading literature that gives me a different perspective on life.

Faux fur coat from Boohoo / Turtleneck from Stussy / Patent leather skirt from Abercrombie / Sneakers from FILA

Faux fur coat from Boohoo / Turtleneck from Stussy / Patent leather skirt from Abercrombie / Sneakers from FILA


Fetell Lee wrote about the different aesthetics of joy: energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration and renewal.

I found that while I was reading the book, her ideas of joy became infectious. Usually I read in between breaks at work, which meant that I was usually in enclosed, dull rooms or areas of my workplace. Reading about joy made me realize that even if I couldn’t change my immediate surroundings, there were many small changes I can make.

In a study of nearly a thousand people in Sweden, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and the UK, people working in bright, colorful offices were more alert than those working in duller spaces. They were also more joyful, interested, friendly and confident. The drab tones of most school buildings and offices are understimulating, leading to restlessness and difficulty concentrating.

A couple of years ago, I also decided to switch to a monochromatic wardrobe to limit the sartorial decisions I had to make. It worked for a while with black, white, the occasional gray and denim (when I’m feeling wild) but it was a challenge. When I read JOYFUL, I officially made the change to switching back to wearing all colors and not be so serious. Hello, neon green turtleneck!

The liveliness of color helps us marshal the energy we need to learn, be productive and grow.

Another aesthetic of joy Fetell Lee wrote about is freedom, and specifically freedom found in nature. A quick search of #plantsofinstagram on Instagram will reveal the pervasive and infectious joy of plants, nature and green landscapes, always hashtag goals.

She confirmed this as she interviewed folks from different walks of life and their connection to nature, an ultimate connection to freedom. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she visited the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf’s home, nestled in Hummelo, outside Amsterdam. Instead of a manicured garden, what she found was something else entirely.

It was not a manicured garden, each labeled flower keeping to its own turf. It was a rumpus, a luxurious mesh of grasses through which constellations of flowers crept and twined.

Play is another joyous aesthetic that Fetell Lee expanded on, something I’ve long been trying to incorporate in my own life. In the midst of all the things I’m doing (writing, reading, creating, managing…), I’ve tried to nurture my inner child by introducing more playful elements in my day-to-day life.

Play lets us practice give-and-take, through which we learn empathy and fairness. It also promotes flexible thinking and problem-solving, which increase our resilience and help us adapt to change. When we play, our awareness of time diminishes, and our self-consciousness fades. Play can put us in a powerful flow state, which allows us to let go of everyday worries and be absorbed in the joy of the moment.

More than ever, finding and creating joy has never been more urgent. In the midst of a political climate that has been spewing fear, vitriol, arrogance and violence, days can look bleak. I tune out the news more and more for my own health and sanity. At the same time, I know that it is also an opportunity to find, create and inspire joy within ourselves and in our communities. After all, we’re all we’ve got. Here’s to finding joy this year!