In the pursuit of business success and bottom-line results, joy is an attribute that can often seem trivial or unimportant. But the irony is that joy originally evolved to motivate our early human ancestors to pursue goals, and psychologists are beginning to understand that rather than being a distraction from success, joy actually fuels it.

Can you define joy? We tend to confuse it with happiness and/or positivity.

The words joy and happiness are often used interchangeably, but from a scientific perspective, they actually have different meanings. Happiness is a kind of broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time. It’s complex and is influenced by a range of factors, from how fulfilled we are at work to the strength of our relationships to our genetic set point. But joy is simpler and more immediate. Joy is an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion, one that we can recognize by certain telltale expressions and sensations: smiling and laughter, and sensations of lightness or warmth, or a feeling like you want to jump up and down. I find this distinction important because while it’s sometimes hard to know if we feel happy, small moments of joy are much more accessible to us, even in difficult times.

How did you stumble upon this life changing idea — that joy isn’t just a fleeting intangible feeling? How did you end up on the path to become a “joy expert”?

I was in my first year of design school when a professor told me that my work inspired a “feeling of joy.” This was perplexing to me because I hadn’t set out to evoke joy at all. I wanted to solve serious problems with my designs, and joy seemed light and fluffy — beside the point for me. But at the same time, I was intrigued, because I’d always thought of joy as this intangible, elusive feeling, and I’d always been made to feel that we weren’t supposed to find it in material things. So I began to wonder, how do tangible things create this intangible feeling of joy? None of my professors knew the answer, and so this sent me off on a quest to understand how the physical world influences our emotions.

And what I discovered is that there’s a growing body of research that shows that many different aspects of our surroundings have a profound influence on our joy and wellbeing. But because psychology has historically been an inward-looking discipline, focused on the role attitudes and behaviors and neurochemistry play in shaping our mindsets, this perspective had largely been overlooked.

During your 10 years of research into the relationship between our environment and our emotions, what has surprised you the most?

One of the areas of research I find most surprising is the finding that exposure to greenery and natural elements can affect interpersonal relationships. In one study of residents in Chicago public housing, researchers found that having a greater density of trees around a building could decrease incidences of aggression and irritability among residents. In a study of prisons, just watching nature videos led to a 26 percent reduction in violent incidents. And just adding a few houseplants to a windowless computer room made people behave more generously toward each other. One hypothesis is that nature restores our cognitive reserves, which in turn makes us calmer and less irritable. It also has been shown in numerous studies to restore our concentration. Yet studies also show that we consistently underestimate the mental health benefits we’ll get from spending time in nature. So finding ways to get outside and bring the outside in are vital to our wellbeing, and might also subtly improve our productivity and our interpersonal relationships too.

Everyone can instantly tell what things make them happy, but how do you intentionally find and create or incorporate those things into your life and the workplace?

Knowing that there are certain sensations — colors, textures, patterns, and forms — that elicit joy, we can use this to embed joy more fully into our surroundings. For example, a cross-cultural study of nearly a thousand workers shows that people working in more colorful environments are more alert, confident, friendly, and joyful than those in drab spaces. So knowing this, it makes sense to include a vibrant piece of art or a colorful mug in your workspace. Similarly, neuroscience research shows that sharp angles stimulate activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and anxiety. So incorporating round shapes and avoiding sharp angles in a design can help to create an environment that feels joyful, not stressful.

In your book you talk about energy and its influence (through color) in the school classroom. How would you convince those on the business side of the value of that? (e.g., How could something as seemingly superficial as color have such a profound effect?)

A recent study of workspace and performance shows that productivity improves up to 15 percent in an enriched workspace (with elements like art and plants) over a plain one. Pair this kind of emerging research with case studies from initiatives like Publicolor, a nonprofit that paints underserved New York City school districts in vibrant colors, that show that color can have a substantial influence on behavior, reducing absenteeism and increasing students’ sense of safety, and it becomes clear that while the potential benefits of these kinds of interventions are substantial, the costs and risks are very low.

We can also look at areas where the research is further along, such as with the effects of light on health and performance. For example, studies show that workers who have a greater exposure to natural light sleep better at night and are more active during the day than those who sit in dimly lit areas. Exposure to natural light in schools has been shown to correlate to improvements in student performance of up to 26 percent on standardized testing. And as with bright color, brighter light improves mood, reduces stress and increases alertness among workers. These studies show that simple changes to the work environment can measurably influence quality of life and performance for employees.

Simply creating more frequent experiences of joy has been shown to have meaningful effects on performance. Joyful salespeople increase time spent in retail stores and likelihood of a return trip. Joyful business people make better decisions and consider a broader range of scenarios in the process of making a decision. Some studies indicate that productivity improves up to 12 percent when we’re feeling joyful.

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