I’m not generally known as a happy person. I don’t think that’s because I’m unhappy, exactly, or because I’m a cynic or a naysayer, even though I have my moments. No, I think it’s because I’m allergic to the idea of happiness as anything but a shorthand for some vague and abstract notion of contentment. Being happy is great, but it’s also amorphous and lava-lampy. If you ask me whether I’m hungry, I’ve got a reliable heuristic for answering. If you ask me whether I’m happy, I’m most likely to think, What would it even mean to be happy?
The designer Ingrid Fetell Lee gave me a new tool to help me clarify those thoughts. “Happiness,” she explained yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, “is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time.” That makes macroscopic evaluations of happiness difficult if not oppressive. How do you feel about your work, your family life, your health, and all the rest? Thinking about it is too much to bear, which only makes you feel less content.
To arrive at happiness, Lee suggests pursuing it from the bottom up, by finding (or creating) moments of joy. Unlike happiness, joy is momentary and small-scale: It comes from an intense, momentary feeling of positive emotion. In Lee’s view, that makes joy measurable, at least qualitatively. Something that makes you smile, or laugh, for example, like watching a dog play or feeling the texture of sand pass through your fingers. Joy is tiny but visceral, Lee said, the “little moments that make us feel more alive.” Over time, those small moments are what lead to happiness.