Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful, has traveled around the globe studying how environments affect happiness. In her book, she identifies 10 Aesthetics of Joy and how making small changes can bring joy to everyday routines. Below she shares her artwork picks, curated in line with the aesthetics of joy.
Art can inspire and intrigue, embellish, and provoke. But it can also have a deeper effect on our psychology. Through my work over the past decade studying the feeling of joy and its connection to our physical environment, I’ve discovered that art has the power to not only influence our emotions, but also our mental and physical well being.
Consider the research that shows that people working in offices enriched with art and other decorative objects were 15% more productive than those in a bare, minimalist workspace. Or that art that elicits feelings of awe may actually decrease markers of inflammation in the body. Art is not just a decorative treatment. Rather it’s a tool for cultivating a happier, healthier life.
In my research, I’ve identified a series of ten elements that each elicit positive feelings in slightly different ways. This collection of artworks illustrates each of these “aesthetics of joy” and reveals what to look for in choosing art that will bring you joy.
Vibrant, saturated colors enliven the space around them, so much so that they can even influence us on a physiological level. This is the energy aesthetic. Research shows that people working in brighter, more colorful offices are more alert, confident, and friendly than those in drab spaces. As the German painter Johannes Itten wrote, “Color is life; for a world without it appears to us as dead.”
Abundance is the “kid in a candy store” aesthetic. We find the joy of abundance in a sense of variety and multiplicity, like the colors of a rainbow or an array of polka dots. When Gail Tarantino translates musical notes or words into colorful marks, she creates a new language of abundance that vibrates off of the surface.
Freedom is closely associated with joy — to be joyful is literally to be “carefree.” And the place we find our greatest freedom is in open space and wild nature. One of art’s superpowers is that it can transport us, and in the enclosed spaces of indoor environments, views of water or natural settings create windows of liberation. Nature views and images, like those captured in Anna Beeke’s photographs, have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve concentration, and even speed healing times in a hospital.
If you find joy in a Konmari-ed closet or a well-organized flatlay, then harmony is likely to resonate with you. Harmony is the aesthetic of symmetry, order, and repetition. The human eye is exquisitely sensitive to balance, and derives a distinct satisfaction from identifying an underlying order in an artwork. Evan Venegas’s soft geometries show how harmony can create a form of joy that is gentle, yet resonant.
Terri Chiao and Adam Frezza’s Lump Nubbins embody the aesthetic of play, taking the seriousness out of a space. One of the reasons for this is their use of curves. Neuroscientists have discovered that looking at angular shapes stimulates a part of the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and anxiety, while curved shapes don’t. Curves set our unconscious minds at ease, creating a whimsical atmosphere that speaks directly to our inner child.
The aesthetic of surprise is all about the power of the unexpected. One way to create surprise is through “hide and reveal,” a technique we use when we wrap gifts, hide Easter eggs, or read pop-up books. Rachel Levit Ruiz’s Cara Roja offers an unusual representation of this, hiding what is normally exposed and revealing what is normally hidden. By incorporating art that upends our expectations, we keep a space feeling exciting and fresh.
Transcendence is the aesthetic of elevation and lightness. Languages around the world consistently equate lightness and upward movements with joy and heaviness or downward movements with sorrow. Sky views and colors, like those captured by Jordan Sullivan, bring that feeling of airiness into a space.
Whenever we see something that feels ethereal or elusive, it’s likely a sign of the magic aesthetic. We find magic in things that we can’t quite grasp or pin down, like the dancing colors of the Northern Lights or the iridescence of a butterfly’s wings. Angel Oloshove’s sculptures use opalescent surfaces to give solid objects an otherworldly feeling.
At the height of joy, it can sometimes feel like our emotions are bursting out of our bodies, and the celebration aesthetic reflects this. Celebrations often feature bursting or radiating elements, like fireworks, piñatas, or the scattering of confetti. Art that incorporates these shapes, such as Ashely Peifer’s Untitled 8, can bring an effervescent quality into a space.
Renewal is the aesthetic of blossoming, potential, and growth. This aesthetic reminds us that life is dynamic, ever-changing, and that something new is always coming into being. Kate Roebuck’s loose compositions of flowers bring the energy of springtime into all seasons.
Written by Ingrid Fetell Lee.
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