The 2018 Healthcare Design Expo & Conference began with a message of joy.

Opening keynote speaker Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and founder of The Aesthetics of Joy, author, and former design director at Ideo, took to the stage on Sunday, Nov. 11, to talk about the importance of joy in our everyday lives and how essential that feeling can be to health and well-being.

Lee’s journey to researching the emotion began in design school after a professor remarked during her first-year review that her work gave him a feeling of joy, but he couldn’t specify how or why. She began researching the idea of joy, discovering an emerging body of research that demonstrates a link between our environment and our emotional well-being. “Joy and happiness are used interchangeably, but scientists describe it as a momentary experience of positive emotion. It’s different from happiness, which is how we feel over time,” she said.

As her interest in the subject deepened, she began to identify objects, shapes, and colors that produced feelings of joy, such as bubbles, trees, swimming pools, and rainbows, realizing that these things cut across age, gender, and ethnicity. Through symmetrical shapes, pops of color, and repeating patterns, Lee said she realized that, though the feeling of joy is mysterious and elusive, people can access it through tangible, physical attributes—or what designers call “aesthetics.”

Lee began identifying different kinds of joy, with names for the sensations they elicit, noting 10 aesthetics of joy that relate to the world around us. (She even began to call this process “joy-spotting.”) As she focused more on the things that bring people joy, she says she began to realize that the places where joy was needed most—hospitals, housing shelters, nursing homes, and schools—were often lacking in elements such as contrast, pattern, and color that create the feeling.

“When we see color, it’s a sign of energy, a sign of life,” said Lee. “But in healthcare environments, we don’t see energizing color very often,” except in the children’s wings of hospitals where it’s permissible to use vibrant color, she added.

Challenging the audience to consider the role of aesthetics in healing, Lee offered three ways to bring joy into healthcare environments, including creating a feeling of liberation, abundance, and light and color. For example, light is critical to our well-being and plays a role in making us more active. Lee cited research that showed that people who are exposed to more light, both natural and artificial, are more physically active during the day and sleep better at night. “Find ways to bring healthy light into our everyday experiences,” Lee said.

On the topic of abundance, she shared the case study of a senior living community that hung numerous colorful spheres above a seating area in the visiting area. The result: families visited together longer. “Moments of joy influence our interactions and engagements,” she said.

However, Lee also noted that concerns about cost, fear of causing harm, and adversity to risk have created barriers to including such joyful aesthetics in design, driving home a message that such elements are trivial and not essential. “We need more evidence on how these things help,” she said.

In closing, Lee reminded the audience that the impulse toward joy is something that we all have. “Deep within us, we all have a desire to seek out joy in our surroundings and that we have it for a reason,” she said. “Joy isn’t just a superfluous extra, it’s fundamentally connected to our deeper instincts for survival. On the most basic level, the drive to toward joy is the drive toward life.”