What is art for?

26 May 2016 by Ingrid

TheAestheticsOfJoy Monet Waterlilies Chichu

“Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate.”

I was struck by this sentence as I was reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy. For those of us who believe the world needs more joy, this idea is itself something to celebrate. The sentence arises as de Botton is pointing out that artworks deemed “pretty” are often devalued by the art establishment in favor of more challenging or ideologically provocative pieces. Yet these are often the pieces that people without deep training in art gravitate towards and hang on their walls. (How else to explain the proliferation of Thomas Kinkade through malls around the country?) Most people engage far more with art on an emotional level than an intellectual one.

De Botton’s argument for “pretty,” which has roots all the way back in his book Architecture of Happiness, is that art can help us live better by inciting emotions that we don’t get to feel enough in the course of day-to-day life. He points out that good cheer is not effortless, and that art can be uplifting in a way that counterbalances our struggles. (Literally, in de Botton’s view, art can be therapy, opening a space for dreaming and hope.) He writes:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope. Today’s problems are rarely created by people taking too sunny a view of things, it is because the troubles of the world are so continually brought to our attention that we need tools that can preserve our hopeful dispositions.

What I love is that de Botton makes a case for joyful art as being at least as useful as “high art,” if not even more so.  Emotions and beauty together have a history of being either maligned as seducing us away from what’s important or derided as trivial. And here we have a succinct argument for visceral beauty as both powerful and beneficial.

In de Botton’s fantasy, art galleries might be constructed with therapeutic objectives in mind, with sections designed to soothe anxiety, pains of love, angst about work, the self, and other stressors. Until then, enjoy your waterlilies! I know I did at the Chichu museum on Naoshima Island, shown above. Like the Orangerie in Paris, this gallery was purpose-built for Monet’s most decadent and dreamy of creations, keeping the light at just the right glowy translucency to let you get lost in the colors.


For more of de Botton’s take on the healing power of art, see the Art as Therapy website
For a great read exploring the evolutionary origins of our attraction to art: The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton

Four joyful design trends to watch

17 May 2016 by Ingrid


Independent design is having a pretty great moment. So much experimentation and collaboration. Yesterday I managed to sneak out for a bit to catch the tail end of Sight Unseen Offsite, a showcase of mostly independent designers of housewares, furniture, ceramics, textiles, and a little bit of jewelry that runs for a few days every year in May. I made it with an hour left in the show, and I couldn’t be happier that I tore myself away from my computer to go.

Design tends to cycle between three poles: the body, the head, and the heart. When design is focused on the body, everything becomes physical. Designers play with balance, with comfort, with materials. Then we go through a moment where design is focused on the head, and everything becomes an intellectual exercise. Designs become thought experiments, expressions of ideologies. And then there are the sweet moments when design is all “heart.” It leads with the emotions, with color, texture, and form.

What I saw today, and what I’ve been seeing in fashion as well, is that design is in that “heart” moment, full of vibrant, exuberant energy. Occasionally it can get a little samey-samey, with the embrace of Memphis-style motifs (more on that below) appearing on everything, but overall it is hopeful to see so many independent designers thriving by putting joy out into the world.

Here are my favorite finds, and four joyful trends to keep an eye on.

1AestheticsOfJoy PigmentNotPaint

1. Pigment, not paint

I saw a lot of designers using pigments to color materials intrinsically, rather than paint them. What this means is subtle colors with satin finishes and unique textural treatments. One of the things I like about this method is that it creates unpredictable, one-of-a-kind pieces because different colored materials can be mixed or layered. For example, I love Felt+Fat’s swirled porcelain plates (1), which are being snapped up by chefs because they make an incomparable canvas for inventive cuisine.

See also: Elyse Graham’s layered plaster vessels (2) and side tables from M Material (3), which are made from tinted layered cement.

3AestheticsOfJoy Neo Memphis

2. Neo-Memphis

The revival of Memphis style, the Italian design movement from the 80s full of geometric shapes and bright colors, was heralded in 2014 by design writer Alissa Walker. (She describes it as PeeWee’s Playhouse meets Miami Vice, which is kind of an amazing summary.) Two years later, it feels like the neo-Memphis movement has fully taken root and designers are ratcheting up the squiggly, zigzag, confetti-like patterns with even more color and layering. Case in point: these towels, cushions, and clothes by DusenDusen (3, 5).

See also: Studio Proba x Chiaozza’s Suspended Confetti installation (2), The Granite’s ceramics (1), and the Block Party seating by Print All Over Me x Various Projects (4).

4AestheticsOfJoy QuirkyGeometries

3. Quirky geometries

The other way Memphis is cropping up is in the quirky geometries that designers are embracing. Aelfie’s op-art patterned polygonal stools (4) were one example, Merve Kahraman’s circle and semi-circle chair and mirror design (2) are another.

See also: Zoe Mowat’s brush study (1), a part of an excellent group show on reinterpreted Shaker design, and the playful face vases by Saint Karen (3).

2AestheticsOfJoy Dusty Brights

4. Dusty brights

Lastly, an observation on color. I tend to favor bright, saturated colors over greyed out, muddy ones, but right now there’s a color palette that is like 90% bright with a hint of softness that is popping up everywhere. I love this, especially if you want to use a lot of different colors together. It’s got a kind of sun-bleached, midsummer vibe that is super-livable. One of my favorite examples from yesterday is pretty much everything by designer Dana Haim: textiles, rugs, and even those sweet little watercolor studies of her pattern designs (2, 3, 5, 6).

See also: Baskets by Studio Gorm (1), tableware by Felt+Fat (4).

One of the best things about going to design shows like this is getting to know so many awesome new designers. Who are your favorite independent designers?

Moodboards composed with Trays

A glossary of joys

13 May 2016 by Ingrid

Aoj mbuki mvuki

Njoki shared with me this great piece in The New Yorker about the Positive Lexicography Project, an attempt by psychologist Tim Lomas to catalog all the words in different languages that express subtle and sometimes culturally specific forms of joy. I couldn’t help but love this word mbuki-mvuki, which means “to shed clothes to dance uninhibited” in Bantu.

Mbuki-mvuki may not be in your plans this weekend, but I hope some other joyful things are, whether that’s utepils (Norwegian for “a beer that is enjoyed outside…particularly on the first hot day of the year”), volta (Greek for “a leisurely stroll”) or just boketto (Japanese for “gazing off into the distance”). Happy Friday and enjoy!

Read: “The Glossary of Happiness”
Full list here

Five joyful elementary schools from around the world

9 May 2016 by Ingrid

Little Hall

When you stop to think about it, isn’t it amazing that schools often feature some of the worst architecture? We invest millions in building fancy skylit shopping malls, yet shuttle kids off to learn in grey-beige boxes under fluorescent lights.

Fortunately, there are some brilliant models for schools popping up around the world, especially in the elementary school space. I’ve been collecting these examples for awhile. Seeing them together inspires me to think maybe there’s an opportunity for a sea change in educational architecture. Also, it’s really stinking cute ;)

Little Hall2

Little Hall3

Little Hall, Prestwood Infant School
Buckinghamshire, UK

Designed by UK studios De Rosee Sa and PMR, this school dining hall was inspired by Roald Dahl’s story “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The colorful battens are used to bring vibrancy to the playground, while the different-sized windows reference the little underground village from the story, “with streets and houses on each side – separate houses for badgers and moles and rabbits and weasels and foxes.”

Images: Jack Hobhouse; for more





AN Kindergarten
Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

This kindergarten is an update on a building designed 42 years ago by Hibino Sekkei and Youji no Shiro. In addition to renovating the building for safety, the designers added little house-shaped nooks throughout the space to promote exploration, play, and physical activity. The climbing wall is a nice touch too.

Images: Studio Bauhaus, Kenjiro Yoshimi and Ryuji Inoue; for more





Flower Kindergarten
Seoul, Korea

This swoon-worthy school, designed by OA Lab, is anchored around a clever staircase that has a slide alongside it, and creates play areas above and below. The facade uses windows in four different sizes with colors matched to the classrooms to enable children to identify their own classroom from the street. Classrooms feature curved walls which create a gentler feel to the space.

Images: Kyungsub Shin; for more




Kindergarten Kekec
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Arhitektura Jure Kotnik designed this extension to an existing prefab kindergarten. The panels are painted bright colors on one side and plain wood on the other, and aim to address the lack of play equipment at the school, creating a built in play element. It was built and assembled in only three days.

Images: Miran Kambič; for more

DPS Kindergarten2

DPS Kindergarten1

DPS Kindergarten4

DPS Kindergarten3

DPS Kindergarten
Bangalore, India

Designed by Khosla Associates, this colorful kindergarten is a prototype for Delhi Public School which will be rolled out across Southern India. The porous screens, made of perforated brick, enable cross-ventilation and soften the barrier between inside and outside.

Images: Shamanth Patil J.; for more

All schools via Dezeen, which has a wonderful repository of beautiful schools to check out.

The thief of joy

3 May 2016 by Ingrid



It’s a fine line between inspiration and envy. I walk it daily on Instagram, Pinterest, and all the rest. One second I’m seeing a matcha-chia pudding recipe I can’t wait to try or a painting technique I want to experiment with, and the next I’m looking at someone’s gorgeous skylit studio and feeling a wash of self-pity over my little kitchen counter setup. At its best, social media appeals to my curiosity, my daring, my sensualist seeker. The part of me that leads the way to new joys and discoveries. At its worst, it whispers to my ambition, my competitive nature, feeding my fear that I’m not, nor will I ever be, good enough. It whispers me right into inertia.

Did I say “at its worst”? What I should’ve said is “at my worst”. Because what’s on those channels is just stuff. Whatever the agenda of the sharer, by the time it gets to me, it’s just words and images. And I find if I can stay in the joy of it, without comparing it to my life, then it’s a welcome respite from all the other black-and-white channels of communication in my life. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said good old TR, and I’m always grateful for the reminder.

It strikes me that we have the word schadenfreude (inherited from the German language) to describe joy in someone’s misfortune, but we don’t have a word in common use for joy in someone’s success. Why does language so often emphasize the negative over the positive? The sanskrit word mudita might come close to what we need. I’ve seen it defined as “reveling in the joy of another”. It takes a certain bravery to embrace mudita, I think. Or at least an awareness that joy is not finite, and that one person’s good fortune does not drain the fortune pool, leaving less for the rest of us. I think our scarcity-wired brains have trouble with this. They’re secretly very good at math, specifically subtraction. They are very good at the zero-sum game.

Yet they are also vulnerable to the sheer beauty of things, and this is for me the best way of out the comparison trap. To wit: the friend who left her paint palette in the rain overnight and came outside to find a rainbow. The friend whose new dog looks exactly, adorably like the emoji of a dog. Even the friend who is always on the beach. Because pictures of ocean waves and palm trees can be a 1-second vacation, if you let them.

How’s your inspiration/envy balance when it comes to social media? Do you have any tricks for staying on the positive side of the line?

{aesthetic of joy} Crystals

28 April 2016 by Ingrid

Crystals moodboard1

stone / print / chair / necklace / studs

For as long as I can remember, my favorite room in the Museum of Natural History has been the Hall of Gems. Not the great hall of dinosaur skeletons, imposing and airy, the favorite zone of most children. Not the dioramas either, with their vibrantly painted landscapes, nor the vast tranquil coolness of the Hall of Ocean Life. But the comparatively inert gallery of rocks and minerals.

The hall is dark, quiet. In my memory it is lined with black velvet, though in reality it’s more like a charcoal grey carpet. The softness and muted sounds contrast with the stones themselves, the meteorites, moon rocks, and micas with their impenetrable surfaces and sharp edges. It was the crystals in particular that enchanted. Each one placed just so, each one lit to highlight its unique properties: sparkly, iridescent, glassy, swirly, faceted, fluorescent.

It’s been years since my last visit, but even in looking at the pictures, I feel a buoyant, almost giddy sense of delight. I’ve often wondered why crystals seem to evoke such passion. There are metaphysical explanations to be sure. Claims about unseen healing forces abound, and searching the internet will produce many a diagram that, like a horoscope, reveals the properties of each stone. (This book, in which crystals are whos and not whats, I present as Exhibit A.) As yet science has produced no supporting evidence, yet many ancient cultures believed in the power of crystals, and they only seem to be rising in popularity these days.

Skeptics of the powers of crystals point jubilantly to a study done in 2001 led by Dr. Christopher French at Goldsmith’s College in London, where 80 volunteers were given a crystal to hold while meditating. Participants reported such salutary effects as more balanced emotions, increased energy levels, relaxation of the forehead, and improved sense of wellbeing. And in fact, only six of the eighty volunteers failed to experience some element of altered state. Yet to the delight of the skeptics, instead of a real crystal, half of the volunteers were unknowingly holding a plastic fake. “Placebo effect!” the doubters proclaim with conviction.

Yet increasingly the evidence for placebo effects is real and compelling. (If you’re interested in this, Jo Marchant’s The Cure and Ellen Langer’s Counter-Clockwise are both excellent, up-to-date resources on the subject.) What intrigues me here is that with crystals, it’s highly possible that the placebo effect is as much a demonstration of the power of aesthetics as it is of the power of thought. The plastic crystal evidently looked and felt real to the participants of the London study. Perhaps it looked colorful and felt energizing, or perhaps it felt silky and looked soothing: to the people who believe only in chemical reactions, those sensorial qualities are inconsequential. But we know that the color of a pill can influence the drug’s efficacy (blue pills, for example, a color often associated with calm, correlate to sleeping pills and relaxants) — even in conventional medicine, aesthetics matter.

Crystals moodboard2

sculpture / candy / soaps / crayons

What if the source of crystals’ purported healing power is really aesthetic, rather than vibrational? I don’t have any data to suggest it is, but certainly it’s worth exploring. Color and translucency are rare attributes in nature, rarer still in the non-living world. Crystals capture and scatter light like few things, save mirrors and water. In fact, crystals are the most orderly of inanimate objects. Their atoms form neat, symmetrical lattices. So perhaps their elegant formations, their color and gloss attract some primal part of us that is attuned to signs of life, perhaps even stoking our impressions that they are animate in some ineffable way. Because what else in nature is that vibrant and yet not alive?

So while I tend to live my life in the land of the empirically verifiable, I also appreciate that some mystery keeps us humble, curious, on our toes. Crystal healing might be tinged with pseudoscience, but crystals themselves are just beautiful rocks, which seems as pleasant as anything else to surround yourself with, whatever their effects.

Just after new year’s, A. and I went to a retreat called Lumeria in the Maui upcountry. All around the garden, giant crystals had been placed among the bromeliads and agaves. I fell madly in love with an enormous amethyst set on a cement podium at the entrance to the lodge. It was the kind of irrational feeling where I caught myself, guiltily, in the middle of a daydream about how I might possibly smuggle such a thing in my suitcase. I didn’t exactly feel vibrations, but I liked its vibe.

Artists: Gemma Smith, Rebecca Chaperon, Eva Fly, Melissa Joy Manning.
Products: Sweet Saba candies, Kikkerland crayons, Pelle handcut soaps, The Heiress Atelier jewelry.

{aesthetic of joy} is an ongoing series that examines different aesthetic elements and explores why they bring us joy. To see previous posts in the series, click here

{AoJ loves} Flying Tiger

25 April 2016 by Ingrid

Aesthetics of Joy flyingtiger1a

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One morning late last week I was wandering through the Flatiron feeling jet lagged and allergic and because of these two things, more than a little bit sorry for myself. And then I walked by the Flying Tiger store, and it was like a cool, pollen-free breeze. I couldn’t help but wander in.

Flying Tiger is a Danish chain that’s a bit like if IKEA and Michael’s craft store had a really fun baby. There’s stationery, party supplies, kitchen goods, craft materials (including a wall of glitter!), and small accessories that are hard to categorize: everything from socks to earbuds to multicolored cotton balls. Items feature bright colors and whimsical prints, and merchandise changes frequently so there’s always something new when you go in. Often there’s a seasonal theme — like the strawberries, above — that carries across a wide range of merchandise in the store. It’s always random, often over-the-top, but it’s one of the few stores that feels like a treasure hunt every time I go in.

And here is the too-good-to-be-true part: the prices are extremely affordable. So affordable, in fact, that nothing on this page costs more than $5. (Really!) I’m not 100% sure about the quality of items, but given many items are disposable, it doesn’t seem like a huge dealbreaker. They’re like a little seasoning: joyful versions of everyday basics, delightful in small doses and helpful for perking up an otherwise dull desktop, kitchen counter, or backyard picnic. 


Aesthetics of Joy FlyingTiger2

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Now for the bad news: Flying Tiger unfortunately doesn’t sell online yet, so you have to visit one of their locations (or get a friend in New York, Copenhagen, or Reykjavik to send you things). The upside, though, is that they’re rapidly expanding (both New York stores have opened within the last year) and there should be more stores stateside soon! (Readers in Europe and Japan: there are 605 stores across your region so you’re probably within a stone’s throw of one, if you don’t shop there already!)

Visit: Flying Tiger, 920 Broadway, New York, NY or 1282 Third Avenue, New York, NY

PS: As a reminder, I have never done sponsored content and this is no exception. My opinions on this and other stores and products is strictly my own, and this post was neither solicited nor compensated. If you find it here, it’s because it brings me joy, and I want to share it with you :)

The joy of Prince

22 April 2016 by Ingrid


I got up this morning with another post in mind, but sitting down at my desk, all I want to do is listen to Prince music. I think Prince might be the first musical artist I was ever really aware of. My mom loved the song “Raspberry Beret” and would crank it in the car when it was on the radio, and we’d dance around her bedroom to it in the house.

She wore a
Raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
Raspberry beret
And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more

I was five. I didn’t really get the song but the chorus was easy and catchy and I was able to picture the hat that he was singing about, and it seemed pretty to me. That was the thing about Prince’s music — like any really good writing, it was visual. Colorful.

Raspberry beret.

Purple rain.

An ocean of violets in bloom.

Little red corvette. 

You could see the music. You still can, fortunately, which is the great thing about artists: they leave you something when they go.

Not all artists do it with such joy, though. Prince seemed to delight in life and music, whether it was composing with the muppets, playing pingpong with Jimmy Fallon, or just getting dressed to perform. He reveled in sensations, unabashedly embracing the rich textures (velvet, satin, sparkle, paisley, polka dots) that most of us relegate to trims and edges. That’s something to celebrate, simply because so few people are able… to silence the censors, the critics, and even our own judgmental voices and just wear purple head-to-toe one day if it feels good. Prince did what felt good, and he made us feel good too.

Perhaps some measure of the joy in a life is how remembered when it’s over. Last night’s Brooklyn block party hosted by Spike Lee and the many like it around the world are telling. It must have been a joyful life if the only way that feels right to mourn it is dancing.

There are many tributes around the web today, but if you just feel like listening to some Prince classics, IHeartRadio has a feed running today.

Zakka: the Japanese joy of everyday things

14 April 2016 by Ingrid

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While in Tokyo I learned a new word, one that I think readers of this blog would enjoy. The Japanese word zakka is sometimes translated into English as “miscellaneous goods,” but this is like describing caviar as fish eggs: true, but kind of misses the point. Zakka does describe everyday things, but it’s not about ordinary junk. It’s about mundane things that have been elevated or carefully selected to improve one’s lifestyle. Currently, there’s an exhibit called Zakka: Goods and Things at the museum 21_21 Design Sight (worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo no matter what happens to be showing) that explores the evolution of zakka in Japanese culture. The exhibit’s curator, Naoto Fukosawa, a designer for Muij (a store that seems to be built on the very idea of zakka) defines the word as “things that accompany our everyday lifestyle spaces and provide an element of decoration.”

It’s hard to say exactly what is and isn’t zakka — it seems to be an almost entirely gray area. In fact, the word comes from the root zatsu, which means “things that cannot be categorized” or “things mixed together with great variety.” The key element is that zakka provide a decorative value in addition to a functional one. Paraphrasing a description I read in one article: a plastic ashtray wouldn’t be considered zakka, but a plastic ashtray from Paris with a Pernod logo sourced from a market might be. Handcrafts can be zakka, as can packaging, such as a beautiful bottle for hand soap, or cigar box that is saved and used to store photos. But antiques aren’t always zakka, especially if they’re expensive. Stationery, cooking utensils, and toys can all be zakka. Even very humble things, like these plastic gelato spoons, can be zakka.

IMG 5352

The definition of zakka may be amorphous, but the underlying idea is simple, and is a shared philosophy of this blog: if you make good choices about the objects you surround yourself with, they will pay you back with joy. Naoto Fukosawa expresses it beautifully on the copy for the exhibit:

Through acts and experiences of searching for, selecting, buying, using, decorating, mixing and matching zakka, we rediscover the inherent allure of these miscellaneous things, and they in turn bring joy to our lives.

Not all zakka will be joyful objects, but the word presumes some emotional engagement in the process of acquiring them. Lacking a word for this in English, we also lack a framework for thinking about the pleasure of well-crafted, colorful, or otherwise joyful everyday objects. Our primary ways of categorizing objects are based on utility and cost — necessities vs. luxuries — which tends to shift the measure of value from joy to commerce.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that we attach a negative stigma to the act of investing in objects that bring us joy. Because we lack a word for household items that are more meaningful than “stuff,” yet not “luxuries,” we make their pursuit seem frivolous or wasteful, rather than a natural and even integral part of making a home and a life. At the same time, this framework also suggests that we need lots of money to make a home that’s joyful. I often see vibrant, tasteful homes furnished at very low cost, and on the flip side, many expensive homes that are filled with joyless objects. Yet often we fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t afford the things that will make our homes feel good.

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What the exhibit made me realize is that there’s a hole in our language when it comes to everyday objects, and that this linguistic hole is actually a conceptual vacuum. One of the reasons Marie Kondo’s notion of “sparking joy” feels so foreign in the West is that we simply don’t think of our things in this kind of emotional way. But doing so unlocks really lovely possibilities for allowing the objects in our midst to become a joyful part of our lives, rather than just stuff. I think it also invites us to take better care of the things we have. Perhaps we need new language to help us, or perhaps we can simply borrow what exists. For my part, I’m happily welcoming zakka into my lexicon.

If you speak another language, I’d be curious to know: are there words you use for the relationships between people and things that don’t translate into English?

Visit: Zakka: Goods and Things is on view until June 5, 2016, at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo

The joy of missing out: Travel edition

11 April 2016 by Ingrid

Aesthetics of Joy flowers on flowers

Several years ago I did a post on an idea called the joy of missing out, or JOMO, for short. (Not my coinage but it’s a nice one!) The idea is a spin on the popular term FOMO (that’s fear of missing out), a sensation that skyrocketed after the advent of social media, when we’re constantly exposed to everyone else’s fun (or their artfully cropped and styled impressions of fun) flooding our feeds. JOMO happens when you let go of all that and acknowledge that while there is probably always something fantastically interesting or wonderful going on elsewhere, you’re happy right where you are. As I’ve been exploring Tokyo this week, it occurred to me that JOMO deserves a special place in the heart of the traveler.

You see, I’m what you might call an active traveler. I like to see stuff — a lot of stuff, and I usually arrive at a destination with a pages-long list of shops, markets, restaurants, hikes, galleries, and what-have-you, culled from friends and around the web. I also like to walk, often picking a destination 30 or 40 minutes away and wandering my way there through side streets and alleys. I feel like these in-between spaces are where the weird and wonderful stuff lurks, if you’re paying attention and have your senses “peeled”. I believe you see (and hear and smell!) things that way that you never would have from the back seat of a taxi.

But this mode of travel has its downsides. (Sore feet, for starters.) I have a tendency to push just a bit too far. The relentless pursuit of “one more stop” can wear out my travel companions and honestly, me too. And I can get a little dogged about things. I hate eating at tourist traps and will often wander for way too long trying to find a restaurant I’m happy with, which leads to that terribly unpleasant cranky state known in our house as hangry.

This trip was no exception. One night after a day that featured a long walk through three different neighborhoods, two pilgrimages to shops on opposite ends of the city recommended by friends, a museum exhibit, and a stop at a hedgehog cafe (only in Tokyo could that be a real day), I found myself wandering around looking for dinner. I was in Aoyama, a neighborhood I’ve been to more than a few times before, but I didn’t have a particular destination and I was in an unusually picky mood. I passed dozens of restaurants, but nothing seemed to fit the idea I had in mind for what I wanted: cozy, authentic, not-too-loud, good food, good for writing. I passed place after place that looked fine, but just not special. To stop felt like settling; walking on meant the possibility of finding a wonderful gem, an unexpected delight. I felt myself start to grow hungry, then tired. My phone died. And at some point I saw a clock and realized I’d been on this increasingly less-leisurely dinner expedition for an hour. I knew I had to compromise. I doubled back to a place I’d seen a block or so back, and made my way into a bright but generic-looking wine bar. And as I settled into a bar stool, I felt it: a sharp spasm in my back that knocked the wind out of me.

I took a breath and tried to move. It was agonizing at first but eventually (and after a glass of sake) the pain started to subside and I was able to move normally. But it jolted me. Between the curiosity (good) and the fear of missing out on things (not-so-good) I had completely forgotten to take care of myself. And the result was definitely not joyful.

The next day, a Saturday, I woke up determined to take it slow. I had a long, quiet breakfast and instead of scribbling every single observation in my notebook, I just watched the people walking by in the street. I passed by a florist and on a whim I bought a couple of anemones, then walked to the nearest cafe with outdoor seating and sketched in the sunshine. I didn’t make any pilgrimages anywhere, and the only “destination” I had all day was dinner with an old friend. Basically, I did the kinds of things I’d do on a particularly nice Saturday at home. I just did them in Japan. I’m sure I missed out on things, but this is Tokyo! No sane human could see it all in a lifetime, much less a couple of weeks. Ironically, by doing less, I felt more joy than I did when I was rushing around, checking things off my list. I felt a part of the life of the city, I was in its rhythm rather than outside of it.

A traveler’s FOMO is a different thing from the regular kind, to be sure. It’s the sense of being in a special place, far away from home, and not wanting to waste the precious time that you have. When I get mad about having to eat a substandard meal, it’s because I’m aware that I only have a limited number of meals in Japan, and I know there’s good food out there, I just don’t know how to find it. And when I’m rushing around to check out all the places people told me I just have to see, it’s because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back to this spot on the other side of the planet, and I want to be sure I’ve appreciated it. It’s almost a kind of gratitude — feeling so lucky to get to experience something new that you want to really do it all justice.

But what I was reminded of this trip is that it’s also important to just be in a place. To take time to stop and smell the roses (or draw them, as the case may be). Because that is a vital way of experiencing a place, and a joyful way of using your precious time. Next time you travel, I hope you take just one day — or if you don’t have a day, even just an hour — to do nothing special. Have a coffee, read a magazine, eat a sandwich. Don’t take photos. Pass on the museum, skip your reservations, and ditch your list. And for just a little while, feel the joy of being the traveler who is missing out.