Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness

The book cover for "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness"

BookZone is a book review column shared by Jo Giese and Ed Warren.

‘Tis almost the season to be jolly and what better book to read this time of year than “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness” by Ingrid Fetell Lee (pub. Little Brown).

With happy splashes of colorful confetti, the book’s cover sets a joyful tone. However, the reader shouldn’t be misled. This is not one of those slick, feel-good, new age tomes. The author, Ingrid Fetell Lee, the former design director at IDEO, a global innovation firm, approaches the subject of joy and happiness seriously. As a designer, she’d studied how aesthetics change people’s attitudes and behavior from the outside in. She says aesthetics can help reveal why some stores and restaurants bustle with activity, while others stand quiet and empty.

After the tragedy of the Woolsey Fire, this book might just offer the pick-me-up some people in our community need. The 10 chapter titles range from “Energy and Abundance” to “Surprise and Celebration.”

As an author who has also written about the importance of color (“Don’t Be Drab”), I identified with Lee’s thoughts on color: Color is energy made visible. She says we underestimate the impact of color because we view it as an instrument of decoration, not utility. She demonstrates the power of color to enliven dreary places and the people in them by pointing to the stunning work of Publicolor, a nonprofit that transforms underserved New York City public schools by painting them with vibrant colors. In 20 years Publicolor has painted more than 400 schools and, although schools are complex systems, making it challenging to isolate the impact of color on academic outcomes Lee says anecdotal evidence reveals significant positive changes have followed in the wake of Publicolor intervention.

The author also advocates for dressing in color for the joy we want. On a rainy day, she says it’s almost as if a colorful garment is a tiny gift, a brilliant spot of joy in a bleak landscape. Or, a woman can be wearing all black, but a polka-dot scarf makes her look like an ambassador of joy.

The “Freedom” chapter rehashes the well-known value of having access to nature, which is known to improve sleep quality, decrease blood pressure and even lengthen lifespan. Spending time in nature also decreases blood flow to a part of the brain called subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the tendency to brood over problems. Natural settings literally make us more carefree—and joyful.

Lee is skeptical that her childhood memory of the Radio City Rockettes’ kickline was exaggerated. She had assumed that joy was unrestrained and energetic—yet, when she revisited Radio City as an adult, she couldn’t deny the deep simple joy she felt seeing that impeccable row of 36 dancers moving in perfect harmony. She was left with the conundrum: Joy is free and wild, but sometimes it’s also very well organized.

My most favorite chapter is “Play,” in which the author meets Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play (who knew). Brown tells her, “The need to play is in us, and if we don’t do it, we’re in trouble.” Lee writes that play allows us to let go of everyday worries and be absorbed in the joy of the moment.

I can’t imagine a fresher, more upbeat, joyous book for everyone’s holiday gift list.

Jo Giese is the author of Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons from My Mother, and was president of the MalibuGreenMachine.

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