Moving beyond the "survivalist" mindset

If you’ve been keeping up with the Marie Kondo craze, you have probably also heard the famous question that turns tidying up into an art: “Does it spark joy?”

This question has led me to wonder, “what is joy exactly?” Fashion designer Ingrid Fetell Lee answers this question in her TED Talk, “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It,” in which she explores both the aesthetics and the biological necessity of joy. (Check out her website to learn more about Lee’s exploration of joy.)

Drawing from her design experience, Lee became attuned to the particular patterns, colors, and designs that evoke joy in the lives of people across different nations, ages, and backgrounds. Lee found that for many people, “round things ... pops of bright color ... symmetrical shapes ... a sense of abundance and multiplicity ... a feeling of lightness or elevation” gave rise to a sensation of joy.

She also found that joy is different from the feeling of happiness: “When psychologists use the word joy, what they mean is an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion—one that makes us smile and laugh and feel like we want to jump up and down…. It’s different than happiness, which measures how good we feel over time.” While happiness is more tempered, joy comes in bursts, and is often unexpected. It’s that deep red carnation on a coffee shop table, a bouquet of multicolored balloons being carried down a street, the curling of steam caught in a beam of sunlight.

I don’t know about you, but for me, joy becomes harder to find in the winter months. In some ways, this makes sense. Citing neuroscience, Lee connects concepts of color and abundance to our need for survival: “Color, in a very primal way, is a sign of life, a sign of energy. And the same is true of abundance. We evolved in a world where scarcity is dangerous, and abundance meant survival.” Think of a bowl of oranges or Lee’s example of confetti. What makes these things joyful is not only that they are colorful and pleasing to the eye, but that they are multiple. They remind us that there is more than enough for everyone. Just as our brains are attuned to abundance, they react to curves differently than they react to angles, because “angles in nature are often associated with objects that might be dangerous to us … we evolved an unconscious sense of caution around these shapes, whereas curves set us at ease.”

In winter, our landscapes are often rather barren and grim (whether you live in a place where winter means snow, ice, and overcast skies, or if it’s simply a time of dried grasses and muted landscapes). Trees are bare, flowers are gone, and frost and snow, though beautiful in some respects, hide the pops of color we can more readily find in other seasons.

But perhaps these patterns of joy can be found during these rather dreary months--and also cultivated in our everyday lives. Below are a few ideas on how to bring a little joy into even the most dreary winter day.

01. Wear pops of color. 

Sure, the world outside our windows may be hidden under layers of white, but let that dazzling snow be the blank canvas that accentuates the colors you’re wearing. Maybe you have a bright red hat, or royal blue mittens, or amazingly orange boots that you’ve been wanting to wear for a special occasion. I paired a bright yellow sweater with a teal scarf for my first day of work after the holidays. Coworkers commented on the vivid color combination, but more importantly, I enjoyed wearing the colors because they added a dose of the unexpected to the day. If buying something is not in the budget, a friend’s closet may also offer some new possibilities. Try some of these fun outfit ideas:

02. Ask people about joy. 

Once Lee became interested in the subject of joy, she became “the Nancy Drew of joy.” She asked friends and strangers what brought them joy. I’ve used this question in my own life, and I’ve found that even if you’re not on the same page as someone in terms of politics, religion, or other important values, asking about joy is often a question that crosses the divide.

Asking about joy is something I’ve seen work in the lives of others as well as in my own. A friend told me a story of a college that organized a debate between a priest and an atheist on the existence of God. Before the debate, the atheist was invited to dinner by the religious organization. There was awkward silence and discomfort in making conversation until the priest asked the atheist, “So, what brings you joy?” The atheist began talking about his family, and that moment reminded those at the table about their shared humanity, allowing the conversation that followed to be more fluid.

I am also a fan of taking the joy question a step further, and spending time doing the things that bring other people joy. This has taken me out on the town for a night of swing dancing, to an alternative rock concert, and to a guitar performance at which I was the only audience member. I might not have chosen these activities for myself, but the fact that they brought joy to someone I cared about made them more attractive to me.

03. Collect your own moments of joy and share them with others.

It’s easy to go through the motions of the day without really seeing the day, especially when it’s winter and the most attractive option is to nestle under a couple blankets with a mug of tea. When Lee was investigating joy, she created a wall of photographs of the things that brought joy. She collected pictures of hot air balloons, a sea shell, a vibrant blue-and-white pattern on tile, and sprinkles on ice cream. Become a collector of the joyful in the way that best suits you. I document moments of joy in a gratitude journal and through poetry. Others might enjoy taking or drawing pictures of the joyful things they encounter each day or talking about these moments with a good friend.

In reflecting on Lee’s exploration of joy, one of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that joy is often accompanied by the desire to share it. For example, a couple weeks ago I was in Aldi picking up last-minute items for a party I was hosting that evening. At the checkout counter, I stumbled upon some simple bouquets. I was drawn to the bright pink rose of one particular bouquet, and the inclination to share this unexpected moment of joy with my guests prompted me to add them to my purchase. I’ve found that sharing joyful moments allows for joy to spread into the lives of others, a kind of pay-it-forward that infuses a bit of the extraordinary into ordinary life.

Though winter—especially late winter—can be seen through the lens of “let’s just get this over with,” Lee’s work has inspired me to see beauty and find joy in my least favorite season. A couple days ago, I was struck by the thoughtful way in which the thick flakes of snow swirled down into the street outside my window. This moment was arresting and reminded me that winter itself can also have hidden pockets of joy. As Lee puts it, once she was attuned to looking for moments of joy, “It was like I had a pair of rose-colored glasses…. It was like these little moments of joy were hidden in plain sight.” If winter is a season that traditionally saddens or frustrates you, keep your eyes open for the joyful. Chances are, it’s budding all around you.