Ingrid Fetell Lee has devoted ten years to answering the question: “How do tangible things create intangible joy?”
Drawing on research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology, her book, Joyful, and her website “The Aesthetics of Joy“, designer and author Ingrid Fetell Lee has devoted her career to exploring the powerful connection between our surroundings and our emotions. Her Ted Talk, “How to Live Your Life With Joy” has been watched 17 million times, and left me wanting to dive deeper into the powerful connection between our environment and emotions. What simple changes can each of us make in our own homes for a more blissful state of being?
According to Ingrid, if you’ve ever walked into a room and felt that something wasn’t quite right but couldn’t put your finger on it, you’ve experienced the powerful connection between your environment and your emotions. We all have a natural intuition for the kinds of spaces that feel good to us. Yet so often, we’re bombarded with opinions about what we’re supposed to like, and it can make that inner voice hard to hear.
Many people end up believing they lack an “eye” for design or that they need in-depth training, when in fact anyone can create a beautiful, happy home. They just need a few tools to help them do it.
Curious to learn how to get your own feng shui in sync? We’ve excerpted a chapter from Ingrid’s book, Joyful, below that is all about how to create a perfect sense of harmony and flow throughout your home that will enhance your wellbeing and your connection with those whom you share your space with. In the book, she explores how the mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day have surprising and powerful effects on our mood, and explains why one place may make us feel anxious or competitive, while another may foster delight and sharing. But most importantly, she reveals how we can harness the power of our surroundings to live fuller, healthier, and truly joyful lives.
Scroll on to read the excerpt, and if you’d like additional tips, you can download her free home workshop, “The 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home” which includes a sneak peek at her online course.
The following has been excerpted from chapter four of ‘Joyful’.
Because the feeling of harmony can be so subtle, sometimes a sense of imbalance arises, and even with my design training, I don’t always know how to address it. Hungry for more concrete guidance on how to create harmony in a space, I began looking into the history of architecture and design. It didn’t take me long to discover that a well-established practice of spatial harmony has existed for millennia: the Chinese art of feng shui.
I had always been a bit circumspect about feng shui. The articles I had read had promised luck and prosperity by following a few simple tips but never shared a rationale for why the advice might produce such wonderful outcomes. It seemed more like magical thinking than science to me, a kind of astrology for the home. At the same time, feng shui has been practiced continuously for more than five thousand years. With that kind of staying power, maybe it deserved a closer look.
As I embarked on this exploration, I found a kindred spirit in Cathleen McCandless, a no-nonsense feng shui practitioner whose book, Feng Shui That Makes Sense, debunks many of the myths around the discipline’s more mystical promises. McCandless began her career as a conservationist studying deforestation in the Amazon basin. When her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she returned home and was browsing in a bookstore when she happened upon a book that had a brief chapter about feng shui. She tried out a few of the ideas in her mother’s home, and to her surprise, her mother said they made her feel better. After her mother passed away, McCandless devoted herself to translating feng shui’s ancient dictums for the realities of modern life.
McCandless told me that when feng shui was invented, China was an agrarian society, set in a highly dynamic physical landscape. Feng shui takes its name from two of the most powerful forces in that landscape: feng, meaning “wind,” and shui, meaning “water.” When wind and water flow too fast, the result is destruction: hurricanes, floods, tsunamis. When they flow too slowly, the result is heavy air, murky water, and stagnation. “In their profound wisdom,” McCandless says, “the ancient Chinese decided to create a system that would ensure safety and an optimal environment for their people.” Because the location of homes and fields could influence people’s health, crop yields, and even their survival, feng shui naturally came to be seen as a way to increase one’s luck and prosperity.
Curious to understand for myself how feng shui might create harmony in the modern world, I decided to try it out in my own home. McCandless lives in Maui, a location that I’m sure is ideal from a feng shui perspective, but unfortunately a bit too far from my New York apartment to do a consultation. So I turned to Brooklyn-based feng shui practitioner Ann Bingley Gallops. She asked me to send a floor plan of my apartment and fill out a brief questionnaire, and a few days later she visited me at home.
Gallops didn’t bat an eye behind her red-rimmed glasses when I declared my skepticism about feng shui. Like McCandless, she believes that its power comes from the way it reframes our relationship to our surroundings rather than from any mystical properties. “It’s not magic,” she said, “it’s just about bringing your attention to each area of your space.” With that in mind, we started at the front door and walked around the apartment. While I prattled on about how we were planning to replace the cluttered old shelving unit in the entryway, and how we didn’t normally have so many shoes and boxes all over the place, Gallops calmly took in all that was there. Her deliberate manner slowed me down. She opened and closed doors, peeked around corners, and stood back to look at each area from a few different angles. I realized I’d been so busy living in my apartment, I hadn’t paused and just looked at it in a long time, maybe not since we moved in nearly three years before.
“The chi feels pretty good in most places,” she said. I felt flattered for a moment, then realized I didn’t know what she meant, so I asked her to explain. She said that the essential premise of feng shui is that all matter, whether around us or inside of us, is animated by an invisible energy called chi. Acupuncture and feng shui both center around chi; the first seeks to rebalance its movement through our bodies, the second through our surroundings. I must have had an uncertain look on my face, because Gallops followed up with a more practical analogy. “It’s almost like having a little pet animal. Can it come in, explore the space, and figure out easily how to exit? That’s the flow of healthy chi energy.” I pictured a friend’s Chihuahua let loose in our apartment and imagined its tiny legs whirring as it scampered into every corner. Like the namesake wind and water of feng shui, good chi flows through a space (and our bodies) in a way that’s brisk yet gentle, like a seaside breeze. For example, a long, empty hallway creates a fast rush of chi that may be right for an airport concourse but is uncomfortable in a home. A cluttered room causes the chi to swirl around and get stuck. I wasn’t sure how I felt about chi as a life force, but as a concept, it made sense to me. Chi is the circulation of air in a space, the movement of a gaze around a room, the daily orbits of a home’s inhabitants. Chi is flow.
Suddenly, I saw the joy of order in a new light. It was like looking at the classic optical illusion of two faces in profile, and in a flash, switching perspectives to see the vase in the negative space between them. The joy isn’t about structure or organization per se. It’s about the smooth flow of energy that such order enables. The Rockettes’ kick line, for example, is shaped by strict rules. Dancers auditioning for the Rockettes must conform to a height standard, between five foot six and five foot ten and a half inches tall. The kick line is arranged with the tallest dancers in the middle, gradually descending to the shortest ones on the ends. All this is critical, but the joy is not in the meticulous rules and alignment behind the scenes. It’s in the way that such order enables the dancers to synchronize their movements so that the dance appears like one effortless undulation.
Or consider the images on the Things Organized Neatly blog. When I talked to Austin Radcliffe, the blog’s creator, I learned that the orderly layouts featured on his site have roots in two practices: knolling and mise en place. Knolling is a system of placing objects, usually tools, at right angles to one another on a work surface. It originated in Frank Gehry’s furniture workshop in the late 1980s and was popularized by the artist Tom Sachs. Mise en place, which is French for “putting in its place,” is a similar practice used in professional kitchens to set up for a shift by neatly laying out all ingredients and tools that will be needed. Both knolling and mise en place are strategies that enable smooth workflow, allowing workers to see and use materials in a fluid way. (Of course “flow” is also the term psychologists use for being completely, joyously absorbed in an activity, whether at work or play.) But the by-product of arranging things for good workflow is that they have good visual flow, too, with no awkward angles and plenty of negative space that lets the eye move around easily. Knowing how powerful these techniques are, I’ve started to use them in ordinary moments. When I cut up an apple for a snack, I’ll arrange the pieces in a circle rather than piling them messily on the plate. Or I’ll knoll my desk at the end of the week so that it looks and feels ready for me when I come back to it on Monday. Even Marie Kondo’s tidying up method can be seen through the lens of flow. By removing obstacles in our surroundings, we open up channels for the smooth flow of energy through our lives.
Back in my apartment, Gallops led me to the entryway and said, “The only place I feel like chi is getting stuck is in this area.” She told me that feng shui places special emphasis on the entryway because it’s the gateway to your home or office. You have to pass through it every time you enter or exit, and it’s where you greet guests. If your door sticks or you’re always tripping over shoes, then you’re going to find friction at a moment when you really want momentum. This is mental, but it is physical, too. Instead of flowing smoothly out of the house in the morning, your body will absorb the force from that friction. This might make you grit your teeth or tense your muscles, which in turn might influence the way you handle traffic on your commute or how you greet your coworkers when you arrive at the office. It’s a small moment that can have knock-on effects throughout your day. The same thing happens in reverse when you come home at night. Entering your home through a patch of chaos creates a moment of irritation that affects the rest of your evening. With this in mind, I looked at our pinched entryway piled with boxes and could see that Gallops was right. I marked “Fix entryway” at the top of my list.
The other place that she felt needed attention was the bedroom. Right away, she noticed that our bed was in a corner, which is a feng shui no-no. We had placed it there originally to maximize the space, but Gallops pointed out that it creates an asymmetry in the room. “And,” she added, trying not to sound too ominous, “in the relationship.” One partner has easy access to the bed, while the other has to clamber in awkwardly. According to Gallops, whenever one partner faces greater resistance than the other when going about their daily activities, an imbalance is created in the home. I could see how that imbalance might start out small but could build up to hinder marital harmony. I added “Rearrange bedroom” to my list.
That night, I took Albert through Gallops’s recommendations. We decided to reconfigure the bedroom immediately, placing little felt pads on the feet of all the furniture so it slid easily into place. The bedroom felt better instantly, as if it should always have been arranged that way. I spent Sunday at a family event, and when I came back, my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets: the entryway was completely clear! Albert had spent the entire afternoon moving furniture and organizing, and it was like walking into a different apartment. Now that the shelving was gone, there was room to move around. I was able to take off my coat without bumping into anything, and a stool was positioned in just the right place for me to sit down while I unzipped my boots. The first few times I left the house, it was so smooth I almost felt like I was forgetting something.
Feng shui practitioners love to tout the mysterious effects that ensue when clients readjust their spaces. A lonely bachelor finally finds a girlfriend; a struggling entrepreneur gets a big break out of nowhere. I’m tempted to roll my eyes at such stories, but when I overlay what I’ve learned about feng shui onto the broader science of disorder, these stories start to sound a little bit less far-fetched. If your environment makes you feel stable, balanced, and grounded, you’re more likely to feel confident taking measured risks and exploring new opportunities. Other people may notice your calm, unhurried demeanor and be drawn to you. And as we’ve seen, orderly surroundings also make you less likely to engage in behaviors that can undermine others’ trust in you, such as lying or cheating.
No major, life-altering events transpired in the weeks after my feng shui experience. But there was a more mundane kind of magic. A few nights after making our adjustments, Albert and I cooked dinner together. We do this fairly frequently, and most nights we find ourselves a little bit on top of each other. He’ll turn on the faucet to wash a bowl just as I’m trying to drain the water from the greens, or I’ll try to get to the trash just as he’s opening the silverware drawer above it. New York kitchens are not the most spacious, and I’ve always figured that this is just how things are. But on this one evening, we quietly slipped into a symbiotic rhythm. There was no bumping or crowding, no “Hey!” or “Oops!” or “Sorry!” A fly on the ceiling would have seen us moving in leisurely loops around each other, as if we were tracing arcs of invisible choreography. Even though we were tired, we seemed to have a heightened awareness of each other. I suspected he’d probably want parsley on the fish he was cooking, and I chopped a small pile in anticipation. When he opened the fridge to get the wine, he pulled out the mustard for my vinaigrette and placed it in front of me unasked. It was a simple meal: panfried sole, green beans with butter, salad. But we sat down to it feeling so calm and at ease, it was like the meal arrived via flying carpet.
Strangely, none of our adjustments were anywhere near the kitchen. We have no more space in there than we did before. I think it’s simply this: harmony begets harmony. A home is composed of many interdependent parts, and just as we often forget that our environment affects our emotions, we also forget that one part of a space affects another. I like the notion of flow because it reminds us that events in a space aren’t defined by neat boundaries. Effects from one room cascade into others. Just as one small moment of chaos can spiral out and create havoc around it, so, too, can small points of order affect the larger sense of flow in our lives.