What is joy?

20 February 2009

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into definitions of joy. I have this idea of what joy means to me, and to this project, in my head, but I’m realizing there are differences of opinion. A “joy vs. happiness” google led me to a large number of Christian message boards, where I realized that in some religious circles there is a distinctly different definition of joy. According to a number of these posts, joy is something lasting and spiritual, an inner happiness that comes directly from God. Happiness is externally driven, dependent on things that “happen” to you. (Writers point to the common root hap-, which relates to chance and fortune.)

I can understand this definition, but it is important for me to note that it is completely contrary to my definition of joy. In my mental model, as I think is true for many people, happiness is a state of mind, a general form of positive emotion. Joy, on the other hand, is a momentary burst of positive emotion, triggered by an external source.

Joy also gets conflated with happiness in many writings, or substituted entirely for it. I don’t want confusion, but I’m not going to get the whole world to agree on one definition of joy. What I really need is just to clearly define what joy means in the context of this exploration. So, here’s a starting point, a list of characteristics that define the concept I mean when I refer to “joy.”

  • Joy is a kind of positive emotion or feeling.
  • Joy is physical as well as mental. Joy is also physical, before its mental. (Damasio)
  • Joy is a momentary burst of emotion, rather than a prolonged state of being, like contentment or happiness.
  • Joy is an intense form of happiness, but not as intense as ecstasy or euphoria.
  • Joy is an energizing form of happiness, in contrast to bliss or contentment, which are calming and serene.
  • Joy typically is triggered by an external stimulus, which may be further reinforced by stimulating memories related to joy.
  • But, memory is not necessary to feel joy, because even very young children feel joy.
  • Joy seems to have something to do with expectations. Unexpected positive events are more likely to be joyful than anticipated ones. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy is renewable. The same stimulus can trigger joy over and over again. (Essential, core premise.)
  • Joy, unlike ecstasy, has no hangover. While intense highs of positive emotion can leave you feeling down after they pass, joy usually leaves you feeling better than before. In this case, we might say that joy has a positive hangover, and may have lasting effects on emotional wellbeing. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy has a playful, active quality to it.
  • Joy is often connected with children or a child’s world view.
  • Pleasure is a component of joy, but is not itself joy. Pleasure is part of a lower order, dialectical system (the pain-pleasure responses) involved in homeostasis. Pain and pleasure responses are naturally activated as part of the process of emoting, which is why emotions are (nearly?) always perceived as positive or negative. But, the emotion also involves a more complex series of responses.

The act of writing down my assumptions, beliefs, and learnings about joy was very powerful. Whereas before I felt a little bit lost in the thicket of data, now I feel like I have a point of departure from which to work in testing my premises. Sometimes we hesistate to commit ideas to paper until they’re worked through and clear in our minds. But when there’s still a lot you don’t know, it’s really helpful just to get the ideas out and be able to look at them.

The joy of intangible color

13 February 2009

Intense colors seem so far to be strongly associated with joy. I’m thinking of rainbows, candy, and balloons, but also sea, sun, and sky. When asked which color they associate with joy, people have been mentioning a wide range of hues – reds, yellows, blues, violets, but they are all very pure and saturated – no grayishness, no tinting, no muddiness.

I have also been wondering if there is something about natural color that is joyful. The colors of nature are often intense but rarely flat. Of course, the rainbow is natural, and these colors are are pure as it gets. But there’s something in the quality of the color too.

Color theorists talk about different kinds of color to differentiate, say, the blue on your shirt from the blue of the sky. They might be exactly the same hue/saturation/value combo, but they’ll still be different. The blue of your shirt is called surface color, because it’s applied to a surface and can be understood in the context of space. The color in the sky has no spatial information to it; you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s located, how close the source is or how far. That kind of color is called film color, which I always remember because it’s kind of filmy and intangible. There’s something fascinating about film color, because you can’t really put your finger on it, nor can you reproduce it. There’s also illumination color, like the color of sunlight, which is even less tangible and equally as intriguing, because its color affects all the other colors around it.

Sunlight also comes up frequently in discussions of joy, and I wonder if this intangible color idea has a connection to the idea of expectations disruption which is one of many ideas I have around what causes us to feel joy. There is something about pleasurable things that seem out of step with the laws of nature that govern our everyday existence, like rainbows, buoyancy, bubbles, snowflakes, and flying, that seems to trigger joy, especially in children. These laws of nature form a certain kind of expectation. Of course we know that these occurrences can be explained by physics, but our physical experience of them, particularly the very first time, is magical. I wonder if the same principle applies to the color in the sky or of sunlight, and if these colors are not more joyful because of their elusiveness.

Plutchik’s emotional taxonomy

10 February 2009

In researching joy and the basis of emotions, I found this model, developed by psychologist Robert Plutchik. As a designer I couldn’t resist the way he maps the emotions like a color wheel, and it’s also interesting how he’s developed the model in three dimensions.

But, I’m not sure I agree with where he’s placed joy. In preliminary discussions, it’s notable how often surprise emerges as a precursor to joy. My hypothesis is that that relationship will prove significant and this model does not reflect this.

Thesis: Aesthetics of Joy

10 February 2009

The major project I’ll be devoting this year to is my master’s thesis, exploring the subject Aesthetics of Joy.

Aesthetics of Joy lies at the foundation of an idea I want to advance called emotional sustainability, which is about cultivating more sustainable relationships between people and their objects through greater attention to the emotional quality of the design. Much has been said about designing for sustainability in recent years, but nearly all of it is functional. Yes, we need to design with less toxic materials, make lighter and less material-intensive products, and design for disassembly and recycling. But if we are to create a more sustainable world, we will need to address the issue of chronic overconsumption, and to do this, we as a culture will need to completely transform our emotional relationship with our stuff.

The current paradigm runs on high passions and an addictive, ecstatic rush at point of sale. This vein of emotions is not sustainable in human relationships and it’s not sustainable in human-object relationships either. Much of design feeds into this emotional roller coaster by playing within an aesthetics of consumerism which offers an intense but superficial pleasure and little in the way of a long-term relationship. So, we need to rethink the messages we are encoding in the way we design products and experiences.

Many emotions will play a role in restoring the emotional sustainability of objects. But I feel that joy is special in a way that is still somewhat ineffable to me. Perhaps there is a biological basis that I will discover in my research, but for now the one essential observation is that joy is a renewable emotion that lends itself to durability. Joy’s essential property is that the same object or experience can trigger joy over and over again. Swinging on a swingset, blowing bubbles, or putting one’s hand into a bowl of jellybeans can be a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of joy; like a sun for the psyche, it will never run out. This puts it in direct opposition to the thrilling nature of today’s consumption, which is based on novelty and intensity, and ultimately fizzles out.

Joy is a very particular thing. It is not happiness, which is too vague and encompassing a positive feeling. Nor is it contentment, with its snug, muted warmth. It is not euphoria, animating the spine with shimmering electricity, nor is it the zen-like feeling we call bliss. Joy inhabits that ineluctable space between wonder and pleasure, neighboring delight, but somehow more profound. Joy is momentary, but not temporary. Surprising, but not necessarily in a spectacular way. It is personal but at the same time universal, an essential emotion that renews and uplifts the human psyche.

It is these universals that I’m after in this project. I want to distill down the essence of joy, the basic aesthetic and intellectual principles that are capable of being experienced by everyone. Over the next 11 months, I’ll be doing fieldwork, concept tests, and interviews with experts that will hopefully clarify what these universals are, and I’ll post thoughts and ideas as I go.

Project intro: Arousal-sensing wearable

14 November 2008

The third of the three major projects I’m working on at the moment, the arousal-sensing wearable is exactly what it sounds like: a dress that senses when the wearer is aroused, and reacts to that biodata.

There are a few dimensions of the project that are particularly interesting to me about this topic. First of all, I think there is some very interesting stuff going on in the wearables space right now. (For examples, see this.) But there’s also a lot of overreliance on LED displays and pragmatic integration of everyday electronics into garments and accessories. Some of these efforts are well-intentioned but clunky; I’m thinking of some of those solar-charging backpacks and jackets that have iPod remotes in the sleeves. Workable, yes. But once I became aware of what we can do with very simple, open-source technology such as Arduino, I became intrigued by the possibilities of more fully integrating technology, clothing, and the body.

Skin is fascinating to me, and critical to the logic of the project. We conceptualize skin as a barrier, but skin is really more of a porous membrane. In many species, skin reflects the internal state of the organism, projecting it in color, pattern, or aroma as an important means of communication with other organisms. As the only species that covers our skin with clothes, it strikes me that we are missing out on a useful potential means of communication, particularly with potential mates.

In addition, there is another uniquely human factor that complicates the transmission of our internal states outward. The burden of consciousness is that it deprives us almost entirely of the ability to make unpremeditated gestures, particularly when it comes to romance. It’s impossible to unconsciously convey our interest in a potential mate. (Though body language experts say that we do, many an urban single has been misled in this way). But what if we could create a second skin that would bypass our consciousness and display our visceral reactions directly from our bodies?

To me, this represents a transformative possibility. People may not at the moment consider it desirable to be so transparent, but if urban singles continue to lead such busy lives with such few opportunities for romantic interaction, it may become a new shortcut, a more efficient way to meet. I also see possibilities for couples, offering subtle communication to a partner about the wearer’s mood and reaction to the partner’s behavior. Communication in couples or even friendships could become a wordless dialogue of sensation and physicality, bringing about a new kind of body consciousness and a better awareness of self.

Right now I’m in the process of wiring up the input circuits and developing the garment’s output mechanism. I’ll write more detail about the process shortly. To start, the image above is a mood board I created on my wall to inspire the design and texture of the garment. More photos to follow.