The Character of Joy

(Hackley Review - Summer 2020 | Story by Suzy Akin) A conversation with Ingrid Fetell Lee, Class of 1997, on the “value of a life marked by friendship, balance, and joy.”

Ingrid Fetell Lee can teach us a great deal about joy and why it matters.

A successful designer, Ingrid is the author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. As she explains in her TED talk, “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It,” her work led her to explore the sources of joy. Her efforts reveal that the experience of joy is intrinsic to our sense of who we are and how we live in the world, and to our ability to live a rich, accomplished life.

That’s no small thing—and it resonates with Hackley’s mission to “challenge students to grow in character, scholarship, and accomplishment,” as well as the School’s Portrait of a Graduate, with concludes with the hope that the habits of accomplishment students form will reinforce “the immeasurable value of a life marked by friendship, balance, and joy.”

There it is again: joy. It’s not something we hear much about in our achievement-oriented culture. We invited Ingrid to reflect on these ideals to see if we could better understand the connection between character, accomplishment, and this thing we call “joy.”

Thinking about the way she has come to understand joy, Ingrid notes that while aspects of the physical world—a rainbow, the sight of a brightly colored hot air balloon—may elicit joy, the ramifications are deeply philosophical. “We have a tendency to dismiss the physical and the material,” she observes, noting that Descartes’ proclamation, “I think, therefore I am,” effectively divorced the mind from the body, and thereafter elevated reason above all things physical and emotional.

This fusing of mind and body is important, Ingrid observes, because without it “we've squeezed joy out of our culture.” Our fast-paced world, she points out, measures “value” and “achievement” with milestones. “We pursue happiness, and happiness is tied to milestones and achievement,” she says. “It's tied to getting married, buying a house, earning a promotion, having a baby. We see these big milestones in life as the things that are going to make us happy.” However, she reports, while we get a happiness boost from these achievements, that happiness subsides as we get used to the thing we’ve achieved, “and we start looking at the next thing that we want.”

This matters, she says, because “We don't control the rewards. We don't control whether there's a global pandemic. We don't control if our company is giving out raises that year. We don't control fertility. When your happiness is tied to the achievement of milestones, it's very fragile.”

There’s another problem, Ingrid says. “Paradoxically, in the pursuit of happiness, we often overlook joy. We put our heads down and we work and we work and we work,” putting off experiences that offer us joy. “When our parents want to have dinner, we say, ‘I can't this week.’ When our friends invite us to a party, we say, ‘I'm too tired.’ And when our hobbies start calling—the guitar sitting in the corner—we say, ‘I can't because I have to get to this other thing.’ We postpone joy because we tunnel in...and this closes life down.”

Yet research shows that the opposite approach is a much more effective way to find happiness. “When we stop overlooking moments of joy and allow ourselves to experience them, they tend to add up to greater happiness,” Ingrid notes. “There's lots of research that shows that when we pursue small moments of joy, we make better decisions. Managers make better decisions when they're in a joyful state of mind, doctors come to a correct diagnosis more quickly, and negotiators reach more ‘win-win’ agreements. We are actually better at our work.” It’s measurable—we are, she reports, 12% more productive in a state of joy. Allowing ourselves moments of joy leaves us less stressed out, less overloaded, and more resilient.

Further, she observes, there is compelling research on the impact of joy on human connection. Moments of joy with our partners leads to greater trust, intimacy, and marital satisfaction. “When you start to add that up,” Ingrid says, “you have greater productivity at work, you have greater intimacy and trust in your relationships, you have greater resilience. And it starts to look a lot like happiness.”

It also starts to look a lot like the aspiration of Hackley’s Portrait of a Graduate: “to reinforce the immeasurable value of a life marked by friendship, balance, and joy.” The idea of a life that has balance and joy written into it resonates deeply with her. “Otherwise,” Ingrid observes, “what we've seen is a generation focused on having high achievers who can’t connect with joy.” An educational program that prioritizes joy seems essential to our students’ well-being.

Ingrid mused on Hackley’s emphasis on “character, scholarship, and accomplishment,” noting that “scholarship” is an essential part of the equation. “Part of the problem with our ‘hustle’ culture,” she says, “is that it often emphasizes achievement without scholarship. If you have character and scholarship, I think you could have a very meaningful life, where you study and you learn and you share,” even if it never earns the outward recognition society validates.

Hackley’s definition of “accomplishment,” distinct from “achievement,” aligns with an older sense of what it means to be “accomplished”: possessing personal and moral courage, curiosity, and a sense of purpose that transcends the individual, and it is measured by the centrality in one’s life of friendship, balance, and joy.

Ingrid came to Hackley in the second grade—a near “lifer”— and remembers nature walks with Mr. Retzloff that nurtured curiosity in a profound and lasting way. “Curiosity,” she says, “was one of the defining things” of her Hackley education. Hackley is also where she learned the essential value of order and structure—and the understanding, so critical to her work as a designer, that creativity is not just the free flow of spirit. In her English classes with Mrs. Siviglia, she learned to appreciate writing skills as the “spine, the steel armature portion of the rest of the education. To this day, I write to think, not the other way around.” Mirroring the hands-on problem-solving she later learned in design classes at Pratt, Ingrid credits her ability to communicate clearly and rationally to the skills she honed at Hackley. Writing is a process of making things with your hands—even if your hands are on a keyboard. Writing, revising, writing it again.

That effort is also a component of joy. Ingrid observes, “For me, accomplishment is doing something hard for the sake of doing it, because you believe that it'll help people, or because there's an answer you need to know.”

Character, scholarship, and accomplishment. Ingrid reflects, “None of it has any meaning without character. To be successful as a human, I think you have to have a moral understanding of your responsibility as a human and your responsibility to other people.” She pauses. “Character is our moral being. Maybe the essence of it is this: character is knowing who you are and what you value.”

Pausing again, she says, “The human experience can be a product of ever deepening self knowledge, or it can be one of skating across the surface. I think that everything else in our life gets richer when we continue to come to know ourselves better. And that project of getting to know yourself is a process of character building.”

And with that, Ingrid connects character right back to joy. “They are mutually supportive,” she says. “Without character, you might not be able to experience the joy. Without joy, you wouldn't be able to access the character. I think we often see joy as irrelevant to character, like it’s this fluffy thing. But, I've learned that being a joyful person, someone who brings the energy up in a room, can be valuable to people in certain moments. We dismiss it, but that's a part of character too.”

In Hackley’s first decade, founding Headmaster Theodore Chickering Williams created the Hackley campus so that there were places for study, places to gather, and places for quiet reflection. At his retirement, he wrote that people often told him “It must be easy to be good, up here,” to which he replied, “That is what we have tried for: to make a place where it should be easy to be good.” Mr. Williams’ words seemed to anticipate Hackley’s intention, over 100 years later, “to reinforce the immeasurable value of a life marked by friendship, balance, and joy.”

While this focus on joy may seem countercultural, Ingrid perceives a tremendous receptivity to the idea, even a need. “I'm constantly hearing from people who say, ‘Yes, this is what I need right now.’ It is by no means the mainstream view, but there are people who are hungry for it. They’re saying, hey, I'm tired. Why does it have to be so hard?” But Ingrid believes that “you can make it ‘easy to be good.’”

“A lot of what I talk about is that ease can be a path to success,” she says. “Laughter can be a path to success. Laughter and ease can bring us success and yet that's not their purpose. The purpose is joy for its own sake. And that's okay.”