Design hack: 10 joy-inducing aesthetics you should know

Why finding joy is more easily attainable than the pursuit of happiness.

I think happiness and joy often get confused, especially in popular culture, and we often hear the words joy and happiness and positivity kind of all get mixed up. But happiness is something that psychologists measure over time. So it's more of a conscience appraisal of how good our life is and it often includes a range of different factors. How good we feel about our work, or the quality of our relationships, or whether we feel like we have a sense of purpose. All of those things go into our feeling of happiness. And it can be kind of complicated. Sometimes we don't even know if we feel happy. Whereas joy is a lot simpler and more immediate. So a way that I define joy and a lot of psychologists define joy is as an intense momentary experience of positive emotion. And the way that we measure that is through actual physical expression. So smiling, laughing, and the feeling of wanting to jump up and down. These are some of the different ways that psychologists measure joy. So whereas happiness is something that measures how good we feel over time, joy is about feeling good in the moment.

I'm going to talk through the ten different aesthetics of joy and as I talk about these you may find that some of them sound really familiar to you. When I started asking people about the things that brought them joy and I started hearing certain things over and over again. I noticed that there were certain visual and sensorial patterns in the things that emerged. So these ten aesthetics of joy each one is one of those patterns. And they connect the physical world around us to the emotional world within us.

Abundance is the kid in a candy store aesthetic. So we often say that when we feel a sense of joy it's like our cup runneth over. It's almost like the feeling is so good it sort of bursts out beyond the boundaries of our bodies. And that feeling of abundance also ties to a feeling of abundance in our surroundings. So when our ancestors were sort of roaming the savannahs and looking for good places to settle, often it was a sense of lushness in their surroundings, a sense of abundance that told them that this would be a good and a safe place to be. And so we still rely on a sense of abundance which we can find in things like polka dots and stripes and multicolor or rainbow color palettes. And those things give us this feeling of abundance.

If you're someone who finds joy in a really well organized closet or in a collection of things that are arranged neatly, harmony is the aesthetic for you. And this is the aesthetic of balance and symmetry and pattern. And it comes from the fact that seeing order in the world around us often gives us a sense of joy and calm. It lets our brains relax because we know that we can spot threats or opportunities because the rest of the world is orderly and organized around us.
Energy is the aesthetic of color and light and it explains why we have an innate attraction to a sense of brightness around us. So we often use the terms, we often use brightness and darkness as a proxy for our emotions. We say that life is golden when things are going well or if we are in a bad mood we have a dark cloud hanging over us. Well it turns out this spectrum of brightness to darkness is a universal thing and that bright colors are universally understood to be joyful.

We find joy in experiences of freedom. The feeling of being let loose and having our bodies be unbounded. So that feeling of when you were a kid and on the last day of school the school doors burst open and you could burst out onto the playground. That's a feeling of freedom. But also the feeling of being in a wide open meadow and having space around us. Often nature is the thing that gives us a feeling of freedom now because we live in sort of enclosed indoor environments. And when we're sort of let out into nature and when we bring those natural elements in side we can find that feeling of freedom in our day-to-day lives.

This aesthetic came out of an observation that I made while I was looking at all of these different objects that people told me were joyful. And I started looking at all the objects of childhood. Things like hula hoops and bubbles and balloons and bouncy balls and merry go rounds and carousels. And I noticed that they're all round. And I started to wonder why are so many things that are playful round? Well it turns out that round shapes are the safest shapes. They don't risk injury. And so they make it easy to play with them and they can also be used in the greatest variety of ways. They have the broadest affordances which is a term designers use to describe the different ways that things can be used. And so round shapes are naturally associated with play.

Surprise is the aesthetic of contrast and whimsey and a classic example of surprise occurred to me one day when I was at a business meeting. It was really early on in my career. I was very stressed out. I was about to give a big presentation and I was so anxious I thought I might fall over. And I looked down and I saw at the feet of the executive next to me a pair of rainbow striped socks. And he was this serious buttoned up executive and yet hiding under there was this joyful, playful thing and it set me at ease. And that's what surprise does. It catches our attention, it's incongruous and it calls our attention to things that we might miss otherwise in our surroundings.

Transcendence is the aesthetic that explains the joy we find in hot air balloons and tree houses and hummingbirds. Things that float and fly in the air, things that draw our eyes upward in space.

Magic is the aesthetic of things that we can't quite put our finger on, things that we can't quite grasp. It involves mysterious movements and lights that shimmer and shift. Things like fireflies or those swirling iridescence on the edge of a bubble or in an oily puddle. Those kinds of things feel between worlds, right. We can't quite put our finger on them and they create a feeling not only of joy but of wonder. And this feeling often creates curiosity within us. It sort of leads us toward new discoveries.

Renewal is the aesthetic of growth and change and it reflects the kind of dynamism that we hope to see in our own lives, this feeling of movement and progress around us. So it explains the attraction we find to shapes that feel expansive like the opening of a flower, spirals, the way that spirals reflect, the way that plants tend to grow. So this aesthetic really brings to life that feeling of growth and potential and change that we find in our surroundings.

Joy is a highly contagious emotion. It's something that spreads easily between people and celebration is the aesthetic that explains how joy spreads between people. When we want to amplify our joy when we're in a moment of coming together in celebration we want our joy to be as contagious as possible. And so we use things like fireworks that burst open. We use sparkle. We use glitter and confetti and things that sort of feel almost effervescent. And we use those elements to amplify the sense of joy we feel in a celebratory moment.

I think it's interesting because as a culture we're obsessed with the pursuit of happiness and we often attach the idea of happiness to big things happening in our lives. So getting married or finding the right job or having children or grandchildren and we think that these things are going to make us happy. And that can often make happiness feel kind of elusive because many of the factors involved are out of our control. Whereas joy is much easier to access because it's visceral. We always know if we're feeling joy when we feel it. And it's measured in these small moments. And so instead of focusing on a lot of these things that are out of our control when we focus on joy we can focus on creating more of those smaller moments.

  • Joy and happiness are often used synonymously, but designer Ingrid Fetell Lee argues that there is an important distinction between the two: time. Happiness is something that measures how good we feel over time, while joy is about feeling good in the moment.
  • Noticing visual and sensorial patterns in the things that brought people joy, Lee was able to identify 10 "aesthetics": abundance, harmony, energy, freedom, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, renewal, and celebration.
  • In this video, we learn more about each aesthetic and why focusing on joyful moments is the key to getting the most out of life.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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