Why We Pursue Happiness But Overlook Joy: Ingrid Fetell Lee5 min read

Ingrid Fetell Lee at The RSA

Text of Ingrid Fetell Lee’s speech: How to find joy in the everyday at the RSA, in which she has discussed about Joy and Happiness, and shared different ways in which joy affect us.

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Ingrid Fetell Lee: Designer, author, and founder of The Aesthetics of Joy

I’d like to start with an observation that we pursue happiness, but we overlook joy.

And what do I mean by that?

So happiness from a psychological perspective is generally thought of as a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time. So these words, joy and happiness, often swirl together.

But happiness is really this sort of broader evaluation. It’s cognitive. It’s a cognitive appraisal of how we feel about our lives. And it often includes a range of factors, how we feel about our work, whether we feel like we have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, how we feel about our social connections, how connected we feel to other people.

But joy is much simpler, much more immediate. So the way that psychologists to find joy is as an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion. And we can measure that through direct physical expressions. So things like smiling and laughter and a feeling of wanting to jump up and down. So there’s something that happens physically, viscerally in our bodies when we feel joy.

So I think, well, happiness can sometimes feel a little bit vague. It’s hard to know in a given moment how happy we are. It requires some self-reflection. Joy is much more immediate when we have when we are experiencing a moment of joy. There is no doubt.

But I think we overlook this because these moments of joy often seem so small. They sort of pass by in the flow of daily life. And so we don’t often pay a lot of attention to them. I think we don’t really feel they’re very important, and yet they’re really, really important and really powerful.

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And I want to share a few different ways that joy affects us :

So the first is that Joy is contagious. So all of our emotions are contagious. We spread them to each other through our tone of voice, our facial expressions, our body language.

And one of the side effects of this is that joy makes us more physically attractive to other people. And so one of the ways that scientists know this is that they take these faces. They look like real faces, but they’re actually computer-generated composite faces, and they take faces that they deem average looking. And they make them smiling, expressing joy. And then they put them against faces that are supposedly really good looking modelesque faces and have those Modelesque faces not smiling.

And what they find is that the supposedly average-looking faces are considered more attractive. They’re more physically attractive than the supposedly better-looking faces. So something happens when we express joy. We become more physically attractive to other people.

And that makes a lot of sense, right?

Because we know that our emotions are going to rub off on other people or their emotions are gonna rub off on us. And we’re going to want to be around people who are joyful.

And another side effect of this is that, even transient experiences can affect us in deep ways. So if I go into a store, you go into a store and the salesperson is expressing genuine joy, you are more likely to give that store higher customer satisfaction rating. You’re more likely to spend more time browsing in that store and more likely to say you’ll return to that store. So small, transient thing actually can have an effect on a business’s bottom line.

Joy also sharpens our minds.

So I think we’re used to thinking about Joy as something that happens on the weekends, right? It’s a distraction from our work. But in fact, small moments of joy can affect our work in powerful ways.

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So, for example, if you are going to see your doctor, probably the last thing you think you want to do is to try to make him laugh. But in fact, that would probably be a really good thing to do, because research has shown that doctors, when they are in a state of joy, are more likely to come to the correct diagnosis more quickly, and they’re less likely to be led astray by other symptoms that are not relevant to the condition at hand.

So next time you go to the doctor, come prepared with a good joke. And the same thing is true with business people when business people are making decisions. Research shows that they make more accurate decisions when they’re in a joyful state of mind and that they consider a broader range of scenarios in the process of making those decisions.

And some research shows that we’re up to 12 percent more productive in a state of joy. So we think that joy is a distraction from our success. But that’s really not true. It’s almost the opposite.

Joy also opens us up to new ideas.

So one of the theories behind the evolution of positive emotion is called broaden and build. And the idea behind broaden and build is that we are negative emotions evolved to narrow our focus, to enable us to deal with immediate threats to our survival, to our well-being.

So that’s why when someone makes you angry, you can’t think about anything else. Right? All you can think about is how mad you are and what you want to do about it and how you’re going to fix the problem.

Or in the middle of the night, you hear a noise in the middle of the night. You’re not going back to sleep. You’re not resting at that moment. You’re going to narrow your focus to find out exactly what’s going on. So fear, anxiety, all those emotions, narrow our focus in.

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But the positive emotions, the theory goes that they have for the opposite reason to broaden our focus, to enable us to build resources for the future. Being in a positive mindset is an ideal mindset to be in, to play, to learn, to grow, to explore.

And one of the measures that this is something called cognitive flexibility. So when we in a state of joy, we become more cognitively flexible, we’re less likely to put things into rigid categories and we’re more open to seeing things in fluid ways. And that enhances our creativity.

And lastly, joy makes us more resilient.

So one of the things that small moments of joy can do is that it can counteract the physical effects of stress, the physiological effects, elevated cortisol, elevated blood pressure and heart rate.

So small moments of joy bring those measures down and they help the body recover from the effects of stress. So I think sometimes when we get stressed out, we think, “I don’t have time for joy or for play or for fun. Now, you know, I have to focus. I have to get things done.”

But in fact, these little moments of joy actually improve our emotional resilience, especially when we’re dealing with difficult times.

Ingrid Fetell Lee

Why We Pursue Happiness But Overlook Joy: Ingrid Fetell Lee at The RSA