Over the centuries we have played hide-and-seek with happiness. It has mastered both seduction and camouflage: the feeling speeds and slips, changes colours at the drop of a hat. Like good detectives, we have shaped the hunt into a science. Never before has so much technology been marshalled towards hauling happiness out of its refuge and scrutinising it for signs of life.
Economists count tweets to measure it. Neuroscientists shuffle Tibetan monks into MRI machines to watch it flicker yellow, like the monks’ saffron robes, on a screen. We can pinpoint happiness to specific valleys in the deep grey folds of the brain. We know of a happiest country (Costa Rica) and a happiest day of the week (Saturday). But in our own lives it’s often out of reach, and we feel grateful for the briefest of encounters.
Perhaps we should call off the search. An emerging body of research suggests that it’s not happiness we should be looking for, but joy. Simple and small, joy lives in moments: a dog’s exuberant greeting, a surprise from a friend, or a bike ride in the country.
These moments may feel insignificant, but studies show that when they’re added up, they can be far more impactful than a big life event. That’s because joy has ripple effects. Moments of joy disrupt the flow of our attention, breaking up our mood and inducing a temporary state of positivity. In isolation, each moment is just a blip. But the effects of a positive mindset can be far-reaching, making us more creative, inspiring us to be kind to strangers, and possibly even extending our lives.
Joy’s power comes from its immediacy. While happiness is intangible and distant, joy is visceral. It’s inextricable from physical pleasure and sensation. This makes sense, because the emotion evolved to guide early humans towards things in their environment that enhanced their chances of survival. In the harshness of prehistoric life, joy rewarded the effort it took to find sustenance, shelter and a mate.
Many of the sensations we find joyful today have roots in these ancient needs. Our attraction to bright colour, according to one theory, derives from the fact that our vision evolved to help us find ripe fruits among the forest’s leaves.
When we find ourselves drawn to shiny, glossy surfaces, we’re echoing our ancestors’ desire to find healthy companions, making the physical connection between lustre and health at an unconscious level. When we get ready to celebrate by blowing up dozens of balloons, we tap into an innate affection for roundness, which evolved to keep us on high alert around sharp angles.
These aesthetics of joy, the forms and textures of our simplest pleasures, are a language that communicates directly with our unconscious, pulling us towards delight.
The beauty of joy is that we don’t have to wait until we stumble upon it. The research is just beginning, but it suggests that design will be able to dramatically improve our emotional wellbeing. In the future, happiness won’t be something we find. It will be something we make.