Five things you already have that you can use to create more joy at home

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Image of color coded bookshelves in Ingrid Fetell Lee's home, showing a blue framed piece of art

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Sometimes after a talk or a workshop I hear the question, “Are you saying I need to go out and buy more stuff to create a joyful home?”

The answer is an emphatic “No!” Creating more joy at home doesn’t have to mean spending money or buying stuff. In fact, one thing I suggest is that before going out and buying anything new, you take a little time to “shop your home.” A lot of times we have things sitting around that can be reused or repurposed in joyful ways. In this post, I want to share a few things you already likely have in your home that you can use to create more joy.

1. Books

If you have books at home, you have a rainbow waiting to be discovered! I understand the folks who prefer to organize books library-style, by author and title. But for me, when a book is on the shelf, it’s as much a visual artifact as it is a literary one, and a simple rearrangement is all it takes to turn a basic shelf into a centerpiece of the home.

Everyone goes about this a different way. I love how Emily Sweet, of the instagram @sweetbookobsession, arranges hers on the diagonal. I’ve tried different arrangements over the years. In my old apartment, when I had two bookshelves, I had a cool shelf filled with blues, greens, and violets, and warm one of reds, yellows, and oranges. Now I like to put colors in loose blocks in the middle, with black books on the bottom and white ones on the top. Because we see black as more visually heavy and light as lighter, this arrangement feels most natural to me.

You can be strict about it, or if you don’t want it too rainbow-y, break up the colors so it’s not a straight ROY G BIV. I also occasionally like to put a pop of pink in with the green, or add some other contrast to mix it up. There are no rules except what feels good to you.

If you don’t have a lot of books, even a small grouping on a bench or table can create a joyful statement. Or look for something else to color-code. Your closet? Your shoes? The pens on your desk? Your kid’s toys? Your fruit plate? Any random group of colorful objects becomes more joyful when put in order by hue.

2. Art

Do you have art on your walls at home? One way to add a little joy is to mix things up by moving pieces around. So often we put everything into its place in our homes and then assume it has to stay that way. But why? Good picture hangers (I like these) leave minimal holes, and seeing a piece of art in a new spot can be a kind of wake up call for your senses. Whenever I’ve done this, I notice new interactions and color combinations, and both the artwork and the room around it feel fresh and alive.

Moving things around disrupts the process of hedonic adaptation, the decline in joy we find when things are consistent for a long period of time. If you think about it, nature is always changing; it’s only now that we live in fixed dwellings that our immediate surroundings are so still and static. Hedonic adaptation can sometimes make us inclined to go out and buy new things, so we can feel the burst of joy that comes from novelty. When we change things up, though, we can refresh our sense of joy without having to buy anything new.

If you don’t have much art, you can move other things around. Try switching around some houseplants (turning them helps them grow more evenly too), move throw pillows, lamps, or even furniture. Try changing out your fruit bowl for one you usually keep in storage, or switch area rugs from one room to another.

3. Collections

A good collection can provide hours of joy, but it’s even better if you put it on display. Interior decorator Dorothy Draper used to suggest that people decorate with their hobbies in her 1940s Good Housekeeping column. “Don’t sprinkle your collection out of sight in a meaningless jumble,” she wrote. “Notice how groups of small objects, when they are well-arranged, become important and effective.”

What collections have is a natural sense of abundance: a number of like objects gathered together. Why not leave an album of stamps open on a side table to be able to flip through in spare moments, or if you have a record collection, make a rotating display of your favorite covers. Crystals or feathers or other found objects can easily sit out on a shelf or side table, covered by a cloche if you’re worried about dust. Marbles and other small objects look joyful in mason jars (especially arranged by color)!

Don’t collect anything? You might already have the beginnings of a collection and not know it. Think about what kinds of objects you like to shop for, or look out for while you’re on a nature walk. Shells from the beach? Pencils or other art supplies? Fun notebooks? Scarves? If you have three of something, you have the start of a collection. One of my favorite things about collecting is that it gives me something to look out for while traveling. Instead of random or meaningless souvenirs, I focus my attention on a few specific things, like stationery. Later, when I look through my collection of cards, I remember all the places I’ve been and the little shops where I bought them.

There are also some unconventional kinds of collections. Cards saved from friends can be a collection — I tape a few of my favorites over my desk. Maybe you collect quotations. Try writing them neatly on colored paper and pinning up on the wall or inside your closet door where they can inspire you. Even magazine clippings can be a kind of collection, gathered on a bulletin board for inspiration.

4. Miscellania

Maybe you don’t have a collection, or many books or artworks, but pretty much everyone has miscellaneous stuff lying around, the kind that Marie Kondo calls komono. These ordinary things aren’t usually very joyful, but we can use the aesthetics of abundance and harmony to make them feel less disjointed and more delightful.

For example, if you normally keep cooking utensils by your stove, try putting out only the wooden ones, and stash the others in a drawer. Now these things look like an intentional grouping, rather than just a bunch of functional objects. If you have a peg rail in your entryway, try editing what you put out here. Instead of piling on all the family’s coats and totes, tuck most things into a closet and display an edited selection of things that bring you joy when you look at them, such as a favorite jacket and a few colorful scarves.

One simple way to make miscellaneous items feel more joyful is to gather a bunch of disparate things that share the same color. All the random things in this image (from an exhibit a few years ago at the Paris store Colette) hold together because they’re the same hue. A stack of red books with a red cup of pencils and a red flower on a side table look like they belong together. This works because our brains tend to group items that share some common property, giving us a little “Aha!” feeling when we sense a hidden, underlying order in a composition.

5. Office supplies

I’ve always loved a fresh set of office supplies. There’s something about a well-stocked desk that has an exciting, back-to-school vibe for me. And one of the ways to heighten that joy is with a technique called knolling. The term comes out of the architect Frank Gehry’s furniture shop, where rumor has it that a janitor used to arrange all the tools on people’s desks at right angles while he cleaned each night, so that each morning workers would come in to find these perfectly aligned desks. Because they were working on a project for the furniture company Knoll, they called it knolling, and the name stuck.

Knolling is what makes many instagram flatlays so appealing, and it’s also a great way to bring joy to a home office (or a regular office). Lay out your most-used pens side-by-side next to your notebook. Place a ruler perpendicular, alongside your scissors. Stack post-its so that the edges make neat stripes.

I love this approach because it doesn’t require you to clear away all your stuff. If you like having things on your desk, go right ahead. Just knoll everything at night so that when you come back you get a burst of joy that inspires you to sit down and dive in.

There are other things you can do with office supplies too. You can make a mini-garland out of post-its to hang over your desk. A reader recently told me he used a lineup of fluorescent index cards he used to add color to his workspace. It doesn’t take much to turn these humble materials into a little pop of joy.

What other ordinary things have you repurposed to create joy? I’d love to hear your ideas! Share them in the comments, or on Instagram, where you can find me @aestheticsofjoy.

Reminder: My free live home workshop is coming soon! Learn how to create a home you love without moving, renovating, or spending money you don’t have. Save your seat right here.

Images: Top, Johnny Miller. Diagonal rainbow shelf, Emily Sweet. All other images by the author.

August 21st, 2019


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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Nancy mcCaughey on August 21, 2019

    Joy must be seeded, nutured, and appreciated in its smallest embers. It can be found where it isleast expect ed. So give it space to grow. When stumbled upon, sit with it awhile before rushing on. It comes in simple, unpretentious, comon occurences. It does not always shout , it can whisper, when we looking, when we are listening ,it can be found everywhere.

  2. Dominique Mazeaud on August 21, 2019

    Dear Ingrid,

    From my heart, I want to say THANK YOU/MERCI BEAUCOUP. I don’t know how we connected (it’s been a long time now) but I count that day as a real blessing.

    Your much awaited book (by me and I am sure many others) is on its way (an accident has delayed me…) In the meantime, I wanted to say that I deeply appreciate your staying in touch through your heart-joy sparkles. They feed my soul. (In my later years, I have become more playful and written about the meaning and implication of playfulness for us adults. Actually in my book titled, heartist: when Life and Art Become One (now in review) I quote you.

    With sparkly gratitude,

  3. ALLISON LANE on December 3, 2019

    Dear Ingrid,
    Since your TedTalk, I’ve been quoting your insights about splashes of color and cleverly working the word “confetto” into conversations. I’m seeing more color pops and smart, round elements in senior living communities throughout my work travels, showing that people are truly absorbing your insights and transforming them into actions.
    Thank you for what you do.
    Big hug from under a mustard blanket on a deep teal couch,
    p.s. great pedi colors


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