The “J” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Joy is Contagious.

Our founding fathers almost got it right: “…life, liberty and the pursuit of…”

Joy. It seems like a dirty word, or something that’s too good to ask for. And yet we’ve all experienced it and been profoundly affected by it. Why not spread it?


Happiness versus joy: What’s the difference?

Both joy and happiness are rooted in pleasure caused by a good or satisfying experience. But they’re not the same. Happiness lies on the surface of emotions. Joy is what emanates from within – a glowing resonance. Happiness is getting an A on the exam. Joy is mastering the subject matter.

Don’t get me wrong. Happiness is important, very important. But while happiness is about the pleasure of the moment, joy is more a “take-away” of lasting satisfaction. Joy is a triumphant contentment, a deep-seated sense of connectedness to values that have personal positive meaning. While happiness is usually fleeting, joy stays with you. I like characterize the difference as: Happiness you rent. Joy you own.

Positive passion

Dating back to the ancient Greeks, joy has been classified not merely as a feeling but as a primary passion of humanity. According to Plato, there were four cardinal passions, created by a matrix of positive vs. negative and present vs. future: Joy, Sorrow, Hope and Fear. For Plato, joy was feeling positive in the present.

It follows that there must be some benefit to focusing on what is positive about the present. And obviously this attitude isn’t restricted to designers. We can all benefit from being infected by joy!

Joy as process

Even outside the realm of design, joy can play a highly desirable role. Think of when you’re in a meeting — or any social setting, for that matter. One person radiating joy and optimism can electrify an entire group. And what follows can turn into a ripple effect — those newly inspired people infect still others with optimism. Joy is almost like a virus that spreads positive emotions and well-being.

Earlier I characterized joy as being “owned.” It inspires both a deep sense of stability and an increased capacity to reach out – to give or accept more. Joy feeds on itself. It’s the pervasive sense that you’re doing something so profoundly right or well that it’s resonating with your soul. It truly is infectious. Others want you to share it with them.

So, as a designer, think about the next time you’re making a presentation. What tool might you use to “win over” your audience and inflame them with your enthusiasm? Make the joy of what you’re proposing palpable!

Joy as effect

As designers, we typically create objects or “products” for our clients/consumers. We rarely accompany our designs or present them once they are built or produced. They leave the nest — our nest — and fly solo. What can we do to ensure that our “babies” continue to resonate with our enthusiasm?

What we can do — and indeed, the highest aspiration of what any designer should do — is to create embodied joy. What do I mean by this? Embodied joy is passionate optimism made tangible. Embodied joy is the soul of a craftsman. I think you can picture it. Think of a traditional Japanese garden, where deep knowledge of plants and climate, intense appreciation of the subtleties of place and materials, and a passionate optimism combine to create such a profound lyricism that it can’t help but infect any visitor.

We’ve all been infected by the work of the best craftsmen, artists, architects and designers alike, despite having never met them. If only our schools taught us the importance of embodied joy, our cultural artifacts would sing to more of us in our day-to-day lives.

An example from design practice

For a practitioner of architectural design, travel is essential for the soul – a great way to recharge one’s spiritual batteries. (Obviously you can learn a lot, too, but I’m talking about seeking joy.) In the summer before my final year of architecture school, I made a solo architectural pilgrimage throughout Europe to see buildings I had long appreciated from afar – with particular emphasis on Modern architecture.

After being disappointed in finding Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy under reconstruction and closed to the public, I looked forward to arriving at his celebrated chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what the experience would be like. Instead, I simply tried to have an un-premeditated, authentic experience. The chapel was open and no one was “interfering” with visitors, so I was free to roam, in and out and around…I’m guessing for a couple of hours. I don’t think I uttered a word the whole time, although there were a number of other visitors.

I examined the building from close and far, caressed details and viewed overall effects. I watched others experience the building. I watched, listened and smelled the surroundings — catching the sky and the landscape with changing light and breezes. I made sketches and recorded thoughts. I felt like the privileged seeker/archeologist – filled with admiration and seeking clues to how I might accomplish such mastery. It made me feel humble – with a sense of wonder and awe, but extraordinarily glad to be alive and fortunate to be able experience the building firsthand. I still carry that joy with me every day.

Apply your skills with joy and you will not only inspire others during the process but will leave artifacts of your efforts behind which themselves will pass joy to others.

Remember, Joy is Contagious.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter J, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Jade and Jasmine, and a photo of the joy-inducing Notre Dame du Haut.