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The Art of Joy

There’s a lot to be said for joy. The feeling that writer and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb diagnoses as “pleasure plus elevation”; it’s immediate, intense, uncomplicated, visceral, transportative, perfect. It’s a macronutrient for happiness — a foundational element of benevolence, wellbeing and life satisfaction. It’s also woefully trivialised. 

In the world of adults, especially in 2022, joy is denigrated as unproductive, flaccid and scarce. Making plans is ill-advised, as is true abandon — joy is reduced to a fancy for children, as frivolous and foreign as a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Yet, after the last two years, there is an appetite for joy. A lust for delight. When surrounded by pessimism, perhaps the most radical act is to pursue joy. It is the life-impulse bursting through, a tiny round-house kick to our preoccupation with doom. 

 

Auguste Blackman - 'Jump for Joy'

 

How Joy Looks

Yes, experiences can elicit joy; this is no surprise. Dancing to bossa nova, rolling pastry, helping a child write her name, rolling down a grassy knoll, chasing a dog, singing in the car.   

What is perhaps more surprising, is that joy can also be sprung by aesthetics. Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee, interested in whether the way cities look can promote joy, conducted a study that asked adults and children what objects provoked joy. To her surprise, certain examples were repeated again and again, regardless of gender, ethnicity or age: tree houses, hot-air balloons, rainbows and sprinkles, swimming pools and soap bubbles. From these examples, Lee deduced that joy looks rounded, colourful and symmetrical.

Concurrently, to her horror, she also realised how extremely anti-joy many cities appear. They are drab, angular and severe. What would a world that embraced an aesthetics of joy, look like? And more importantly, how would it make us feel?  

 

Steve Rosendale - 'The Diving Pool'

 

The Art of Joy

While we can’t easily redesign entire cities, we can redesign our homes. By inviting art onto our walls, we place ourselves in the way of joy and all its nutrients.

Like joy, art can also be subject to trivialisation. But just as joy, which is integral to happiness, is good for us so is art. The philosopher Alexander Nehamas has argued that in the judgement of beauty, a “forward-looking element” exists. “So long as we find anything beautiful, we feel that we have not yet exhausted what [life] has to offer”, he writes in ‘Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art’.

Indeed, in his study of happiness, academic George MacKerron found that following exercise and intimacy, the next three types of moments that elicited most happiness were all connected to art: when at the theatre, ballet or a concert; at a museum or art exhibition; and while doing an artistic activity. We might add, collecting art too. 

“Beauty is the promise of happiness”
- Stendhal, 18th century writer

 

Evan Mackley - 'Flowerscape - Allover Flowers'

 

This is all to say that we should not ignore which specimens spark joy, and its best bud. happiness. Doing so would be a denial of hope. As art lovers, the delight we feel when eye to eye with a work of art is good for us, counter-cultural and a gift. There’s much to rejoice in that!

Discover more joyous art here.