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At their best, holidays fill us with hope, wonder, generosity, love, and joy. Heightened by aesthetics—rich sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures—holidays help us flourish mentally and physically. We are elevated by the majesty of nature and the arts, but also through simple home furnishings, lights, and decorations in town. The celebrations of Christmas, Diwali, and other spiritually significant holidays infuse these seasons with meaning and perpetuate them across centuries. Here we chat with experts about harnessing the aesthetics that spark such joy, and how we can infuse joy throughout the year, too.

Joy as a glorious virtue 

“Most people conceptualize and study joy as an emotion…I actually conceptualize it more as a virtue,” says Pamela Ebstyne King, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and executive director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. “Emotions tend to be feelings we assign meaning to that can come and go. Virtue is a habit one can cultivate.” 

Definitions vary, but joy has been described as an intense, internal experience of positive emotion accessed in small moments: smiling, laughing, jumping for joy. Happiness is a more conscious appraisal of how good we feel over time, dependent on a range of external factors. “Joy is exquisite and glorious,” says King.

“But I think joy is best understood when we understand it more from a broader perspective of what truly matters to us as human beings.”

Professor Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research focuses on how developing positive emotions can improve our lives. Her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions describes the function of a subset of positive emotions, including joy, that can help promote creativity and strengthen psychological, intellectual, and physical resources and social bonds. Feeling joy can promote well-being by enhancing our memory, making us more resilient and healthier. It can also promote the common good.

The power and purpose of joy 

 “Joy activates us,” says King. “When the world is suffering, whether it was Covid or now with all the conflict, we need to be able to hone our centers of joy to keep going… Because that joy, ultimately, it’s not just for our pleasure. It is ultimately about enabling us to be purposeful. And so, we see joy that way – I need to smell the flowers…to continue contributing, solving problems, and caring for people.” 

King references Yale Divinity School theologian Willie James Jennings, whose theology of Joy highlights how joy can be an act of rebellion against the status quo and resistance against despair. 

Indeed, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama maintained a sense of joy for life even in the midst of prolonged suffering. Their experiences and friendship are chronicled in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World and in the documentary Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, where it is clear by watching them that joy permeates their lives.

“Joy helps to align us to who we are and who we’re becoming; align us to the relationships that matter most to us; and also aligns us to our deepest values and convictions,”

says King, mentioning the Ignatian prayer, which includes reflection at the end of each day of where you sensed being most alive or sensed the light of God’s presence. Habitually practiced, it begins to give insight and uncovers your sources of joy.

On-ramps to joy

 “People can dial into these robust on-ramps to joy,” says King, who recommends that people “exercise their joy muscles.” Activities include dancing and exercise, mindfulness, gratitude journaling, sending thank you notes, decorating, and helping neighbors. But joy is also to be found by paying close attention to your five senses—pausing to admire sparkly lights, listening to holiday carols, smelling pine trees or toasting marshmallows.

For many, enduring joy comes from taking part in communal and social life, and enjoying the strengthened relationships that may result.

“Research shows that deep conversations, when you’re really sharing something important to you, listening in such a way that you remember what they’re saying rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next—when you show curiosity—that is what makes a difference,” says Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at University of California-Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Anything that improves connection and relationships, whether with strangers, neighbors, friends, or family members will help.

Expressing gratitude can improve connection, as can generosity and kindness. “And doing things in sync with others, whether marching or singing, can also make people feel connected and joyful,” adds Lyubomirsky.

The matter of things

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a designer and author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. She also writes regularly about the aesthetics of joy. In her TED Talk, Lee defines aesthetics as pertaining to tangible, physical attributes. The word itself is derived from the same root as the Greek word “aísthomai,” which means “I feel,” “I sense,” or “I perceive.” 

Lee has found remarkable similarities in what elicits joy across age, gender, and ethnicity. The patterns include round things, pops of bright color, symmetrical shapes, a sense of abundance and multiplicity, and a feeling of lightness or elevation. This includes cherry blossoms, bubbles, confetti, swimming pools, tree houses, rainbows, fireworks, hot air balloons, and ice cream cones (especially with sprinkles!)  

It’s also what we see in holiday decorations: colorful ornaments, twinkling candles, lights, and stars. People interpret decorations on a home as a cue that the people inside are sociable. Joy is contagious, too—far from frivolous, it uplifts and takes us out of our routine. 

Lee recommends these aesthetic elements to spark joy: Energy: vibrant color, brightness, light; Abundance: lushness, multiplicity (polka dots/rainbow color palettes/stripes) Freedom: nature, wildness, open space; Harmony: balance, symmetry Play: round shapes – circles, spheres, bubbly forms; Surprise: contrast and whimsy; Transcendence: hot air balloons, hummingbirds; Magic: invisible forces and illusions that create wonder and curiosity, fireflies, shimmer, iridescence; Renewal: blossoms, spirals, plants; Celebration: fireworks, sparkle, glitter, and confetti, all amplify joy. 

Our surroundings influence our emotions and well-being. Art, plants, and personalized sensory stimulation can make workers more productive, alert, confident, and friendlier. The organization Publicolor uses light and color to positively impact psychological mood, learning, high-risk youth, and public spaces.

Joy that endures

“I see all those decorations as indicative that this is a special time…For religious people, this is also a sacred time,” says King.

“It’s so easy to fill up your social calendar with open houses, school concerts, and neighborhood cookie exchanges. Ask yourself, who are the people that matter most to us? And how will we make time for them?”

During the busyness of the holidays, joy and joy-inducing aesthetics help us reflect, attune to, and stay connected to relationships, beliefs, and inner resources that help us carry on and thrive. 

“We’re actually glorifying God when we’re most fully alive and experiencing joy. When we’re living into our strengths – our giftedness, I can do a lot more for God, whoever I work for, and my family,” says King.

“Joy is like a fuel. It energizes us. But the amazing thing, especially with the virtue understanding of it, when you attune to joy and practice and become aware of what brings you the most joy, it will direct you in the areas of your strengths.”