Why Joy Still Matters and How to Spark It (One Year Into the Pandemic)

Why Joy Still Matters and How to Spark It (One Year Into the Pandemic)

Ali Cottong
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Now that the answer to “How are you?” is “Pandemic-fine,” how do we answer the question, “What brings you joy?” This month marks the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization's designation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. In the past year, we've changed our routines and behaviors, and many of us have established a new normal that's not terribly different from the old one. Except...with so much less entertainment, interaction, and spontaneity. With options narrowed, it helps to ask others what they're doing to keep things joyful. At this strange milestone, we asked IDEOers around the globe how they’re designing for more moments of joy these days. Here’s what they had to say.

Write down three good things each day

One thing that has personally helped me a lot is an exercise that was recommended to me by a friend and also recently mentioned in a TEDx talk by Lucy Hone as an important technique to become more resilient. It’s brutally simple: No matter how hard your day has been, you jot down three good things that have happened to you, that you learned, or that you are just grateful for. Nothing negative. It’s all about switching your attention to the good. It is a really powerful way to remind you there is always something to be thankful for.

—Pierre La Baume, Senior Interaction Design Lead, Munich

Find time to play

Something that really has helped me is shifting into a more playful mindset. Especially early on during shelter-in-place, when I felt like I was drowning in self-development recommendations for all my “free time,” I found peace in reverting to hobbies I enjoyed when I was younger that I hadn't gone back to in awhile. For me, this meant diving deep into the games I enjoy (such as SpyParty, Team Fortress 2, Into The Breach,Tetris 99, Raji, and Among Us) for months even, as opposed to playing many games “quickly” to learn more as a game designer. It meant spending more time, even an entire day, re-reading comforting books (such as Pride and Prejudice, Tuesdays With Morrie, Dune, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Shingeki No Kyojin, and more) without feeling guilty about it. It meant more doodling, daydreaming, and giving myself moments in the day that didn't make me feel like I had to be “productive” to make up for all the quiet, reflective commute time and socializing that was no longer happening regularly.

—Ridima Ramesh, Play Lab Game Designer, Palo Alto

See life through a child’s eyes

Observing how my three-year-old daughter sees the world has taught me a lot in these dark times. She always lives in the moment, and what she feels right now is not affected by the pandemic situation. Even after a rough day, she jumps up and down with a big smile for every little thing that happens around her, such as finding a butterfly or bumping into her friend on the street. For adults, although we may have a joyful moment, it’s often swallowed up by the overflowing information and chaos at the end of the day. We see more complexity in the world than children do, but my daughter has made me try to be more present, see the world with fresh eyes like she does, and embrace a moment of joy so I can stay positive.

Kayoko Watanabe, Marketing, Tokyo

Be in your body

Exercise is helpful—especially dance! The brain is cool in that our limbic system is often more able to process emotions and stored energy via movement, than the prefrontal cortex (the thinking mind, which is in charge of executive functions). Moving your body is a consistent hack to shake off the heaviness of this moment in time. One silly (or serious!) dance party a day encourages me not to take myself too seriously.

Alex Nana-Sinkam, OpenIDEO Community Lead, New York

Invest in yourself

2020 has been an interesting year to say the least. First off, condolences to the lives lost from the past few months; it has not been easy. As the year has moved along, I’ve been running some checks and balances on my life: investing in myself by practicing my skin routine, working out, investing money, and learning new skills. I’m very focused on protecting my energy. I've found myself giving less and less energy to various media outlets; I'm tired of seeing this political battle, police brutality, and pandemic talk. Staying in touch with friends and family is major. I’ve been to more virtual parties than real parties this year!

Preston Tilghman, Leadership Coordinator, San Francisco

Actively pursue work-life balance

I've started to look after my health more, and have actually started to turn the thought of “work-life balance” into action (though I'm still seesawing more than balancing right now!). I go to morning workouts as early as 6:45am to start the day on a positive note, and have started to incorporate more essential oils into my life: dribbles into my baths (also taking more baths!), dabs onto my wrists or temples, and mixed into my diffuser. I'm taking different routes on my bike rides to and from work to add variety into my days, and am especially enamored with biking under the shade of large leafy trees. I've begun going on day or overnight trips outside of Shanghai, turning weekends into adventures. I've also enrolled in an improv workshop for the month of November, and we will have our first showcase in December!

I think in general this year has forced me to think about how fleeting and fragile life can be, and has prompted me to be more courageous about trying new things. For me, the moments of peace have been rare, but joy hasn't.

—Kiko Zang, Business Operations Lead, Shanghai

Get inspired by other creative people

I wish I had a silver bullet for “feeling good” this year that reliably works not only for myself but for others as well. However, each thing I've held as foundational that I could trust to inject “good vibes” into my life has been challenged, and many haven't made it into 2020 unscathed. That said, there are a few things I've found myself doing that may not make me laugh so hard I need to throw myself out of frame during Zoom calls, but do bring much desired comfort and quiet when I most need it.

One of those things is Jon Bois. It seems strange to point to someone who you only know through their online output and say, “This dude's videos are what's gonna get me through this,” but it's a gamble I'm willing to take. Jon Bois is a video producer for SB Nation, a sports website I don't read, and he mostly makes videos about weird and niche stories that primarily center around sports I don't watch or know much about. He's a superb writer and a masterful filmmaker, though I'm only calling him those things because there isn't an accurate term to describe exactly what he's doing. He's in the middle of releasing a sequel to his defining work Football 17776 called Football 20020—a multimedia speculative fiction story that follows three extraterrestrial entities watching and commenting on people playing exaggerated football on a post-scarcity, post-death, post-war Earth, where humans are defined by play. It's joyous and there's truly nothing like it. I have an ongoing though incomplete watch guide for things made by Jon Bois for those interested.

Zachary Clemente, Senior Tech Admin, Cambridge

Share vulnerability with co-workers

The ability to build trust with a team to a point where you can be vulnerable in front of each other has been very important on my projects—being able to slump onto the couch with the team for the twelfth hour of Zoom calls or pull out a pint of ice cream at 3pm when you just really need it. I think it’s also really valuable to leave space to talk about how we're feeling during stand-up or anytime during the workday. With major events surrounding racial injustice, scary wildfires, the political environment, challenging immigration issues with COVID, or generally just feeling low energy—it's not a normal time, and it’s not realistic for us to always “be optimistic” these days. The joy I find with my team is that I feel I'm not in this alone.

Amanda Amyx, Design Lead, San Francisco

Get in costume

When the pandemic hit and suddenly I was separated from my colleagues by entire continents, we needed new rituals for remote working. As a creative warm-up, my teammate George Joseph suggested a theme and asked that we all dress up, grab a prop, or put on a virtual background relating to that theme for the next meeting. It was so much fun! We decided to do it every morning—and so the “Extras Daily Zoom Theme” came to be.

The night before the meeting, or even early that morning, someone from the team would come up with a new creative theme for us to explore. Most people would find a fun Zoom background, but since I had an old computer that wasn’t able to use virtual backgrounds, I had to come up with a prop or costume to go with the daily theme—often with only five minutes warning! As the themes became progressively challenging and abstract (from animals, fruits and colors, to adverbs) I got more and more into it. Some highlights: For the “recreate a piece of art” theme, I looped in my mom for help dressing as The Two Fridas, and for Halloween, I dressed up as a campfire with s’mores. Every morning my team members would watch for what new invention I would come up with. This was truly an injection of daily joy into my life, and one that brought joy to others, too.

—Arianne Orillac, Design Lead, IDEO.org

Design new rituals

Since April, I have had a new ritual on Friday nights. After my daughter goes to sleep, I pour a glass of wine and sit in front of my computer to virtually meet six of my college friends who call in from Tokyo, London, and Melbourne. Our weekly call has been set up as a recurring event with no end date. You feel no pressure to attend if you’re busy or tired because you know that there is always “next time.” At the same time, we’ve been able to use our meeting as an opportunity to check in with each other. The pandemic happened when many of us were already facing new challenges: becoming a mom, moving overseas, working from home with kids. We needed a place where we could be vulnerable, support each other, and laugh together to keep our sanity. I have never felt them so close despite the physical distance. 2020 has been hard indeed, but having this regular opportunity to stay connected with my friends brings so much joy and peace into my life.

Kayoko Watanabe, Marketing, Tokyo

Notice the little, beautiful things

The pandemic sent me and my family into the lake-and woods-filled Poconos, Pennsylvania. Quickly settling into a new routine, each day, my two-year-old and I would walk up and down our yard and back and forth the stretch of our street. As my mind circled the themes of the day—the state of the world, the uncertainties of our plans, work—my son observed our surroundings: the sticks in the yard, a squirrel running up the tree, the plane flying far overhead, each passing and pausing bird. It took me weeks to pause myself. I suddenly wondered: How had I never noticed how beautiful birds are? The variety of colorful coats and the stunning range of voices. I soon found myself tracking a particular bright yellow-coated bird on the branches near the lake; each time I caught it perched for an extended moment I felt a simple joy.

Neither the beauty of nature nor the power of mindfulness is a new discovery, of course. But reaping their benefits requires a constant remembering. I am grateful for the presence of my toddler—both his remarkable ability to be present and his presence in my day to day. At two and a half, he is himself transforming and learning about the world at an astonishing pace, while also teaching me everything that I've forgotten.

—Alice Kogan, Business Design Lead, New York

Illustrations by Jenice Kim

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Ali Cottong
Ali is a content strategist with roots in telling stories for deep tech. She originally earned her nerd cred as a former world-class Quidditch player and has competed in the Quidditch World Cup twice. Ali currently lives in Oakland and has traded in her broomstick for a bike.
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