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When Ingrid Fetell-Lee was studying industrial design in New York, she presented her work to a panel of intimidating professors who stared at the objects she’d made in her first year. One was a starfish-shaped lamp. The other a trio of stools fashioned from layers of colored foam. Instead of praising her for their functional and ergonomic design, after a long silence they concluded that her work gave them a feeling of joy. This was not the response she’d been hoping for. After all, how important is joy in the world when there are problems to solve and challenges to overcome? When she asked why each object elicited joy, they couldn’t answer. They simply shrugged and said, “It just does.”
This was the beginning of her 10 year journey to find out how the physical world brings us joy; why certain objects, shapes, spaces, colours and situations affect our mood; why can one setting can make us feel anxious and competitive while another can foster delight and creativity. All of Fetell-Lee’s research appears her latest book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, and it turns out joy really is important. It actually helps us solve problems and face challenges. Joy increases productivity, by up to 12 per cent in some studies and joyful managers consider a greater variety of information in making decisions. Here, Fetell-Lee shares some science-backed tips on how to bring more joyful aesthetics into your workplace. The result? Greater creativity and new ideas, of course.
“Colour is energy made visible,” says Fetell-Lee. Research shows that people working in more colorful offices are more friendly, alert, and confident than those in drab ones. If you can’t paint your desk a bright color, you can add a pop of brightness with a colourful cushion, a piece of art, or even just a rainbow of books.
Knolling is a term that means “to place tools at right angles on a work surface.” It originated in the furniture workshop of the architect Frank Gehry where a janitor had a habit of doing this to the desks every night. It improves workflow by making tools easy to access, but it also creates a sense of visual flow and harmony on your desk. Try it whenever you finish work for the day.
Studies show that when people move in fluid, curvy ways, they exhibit more joy. Playful movements lead to more playful mindsets. Fetell-Lee keeps round things on her desk, like a beach ball eraser or spinning tops, and a ball under her desk to keep her mind and body moving in fluid arcs. What would happen if everyone sat on those big bouncy balls (also better for your back) instead of chairs?
Research shows that adding plants to a workspace can help decrease markers of physical stress and help restore our attention and concentration. Even the shape of the leaves matter. Spiky things make us anxious, so swap out that cacti for a pot plant with rounder, softer leaves.
People who work at sunnier desks sleep better and are more active in and out of the office. If you’re not near a window, you can get some of the benefits by adding broad spectrum lightbulbs.
One of the problems with working long hours in more-often-than-not mundane offices is that it creates sensory monotony. And this can lead to the temptation to head straight to the fridge. To create sensory variety, keep a tray with essential oils, scented hand cream, a scented candle, a string of pom-poms, pens in a dozen different colors, and art books on your desk.
One thing Fetell-Lee was surprised to learn came out of Japan. Japanese researchers have observed that looking at cute things can help us focus. The hypothesis is that cuteness prompts nurturing, which is a highly-focused activity. She adds more cuteness to her desk with googly eyes (such as a googly eye stapler and other office supplies).
Often, at work, it feels like we’re always bracing ourselves for things to go wrong. But it’s also important to be prepared for when things go right. Celebrating together also strengthens community and enhances the bonds within it. Taking the lead from Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder of the temporary tattoo company Tattly, Fetell Lee keeps an “emergency confetti” jar on her desk so it’s ready for whenever good news strikes. Another CEO has a gong that she rings when there’s great news and everyone knows to gather around. Alternatively, keep some champagne in the work fridge with a sign on it that says “Waiting to celebrate!” (Maybe even add some googly eyes.) The anticipation only adds to the joy when it’s ready to pop! Just make sure it doesn’t stay unopened for too long.
“Burnout is as much about boredom as it is exhaustion,” says Fetell-Lee who used to view a trip as a way to take a break from her overly hectic life – seeking out quiet spaces to relax. Now she looks to soak up sensations that are different from those at home. “My vacations are more colourful than they used to be and so are the souvenirs.” For a sensory charging vacay that also combines calming curvature head to Le Palais Bulles on the southern coast of France, designed by Hungarian architect Antti Lovag.
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