On Christmas trees and emotional sustainability

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Over the past few days, I’ve been watching as the Christmas trees are put out to pasture on the city streets. For these first few weeks of the new year, it’s like an urban forest has sprung up from the sidewalks, already half-dead and dejected. And it occurs to me that it’s a good example of an object whose emotionality is transformed by context. A Christmas tree in the living room is a festive delight, a beacon in the room, a centerpiece to gather around. A Christmas tree in the street is waste wood, a symbol of extravagance and indulgence. Before December 25th, a Christmas tree is an aesthetic of joy and anticipation. After Jan 2nd, it’s trash to be dealt with, with connotations of loss and sadness. Time and place radically redefine the emotional meaning of this object.

Countless other objects experience similar emotional redefinition in our lives. The security blanket we thought we could never live without becomes embarrassing in our tween years. A precious gift from a lover becomes anathema after a breakup. A knickknack that always seemed ugly in a childhood home can suddenly seem joyful in our own. As I thought about these examples, and the Christmas tree, it reminded me of an early idea I had in my work on joy — the idea of emotional sustainability.

One of my goals with Aesthetics of Joy was to explore the emotional relationships between people and things, to try to understand how we could design things in more emotionally satisfying ways. Emotionally sustainable objects are the things that manage to stay relevant to our feelings over long periods of time, bringing joy repeatedly as we interact with them and use them. By contrast, emotional obsolescence is the quality of things that wear out their welcome, providing an initial burst of satisfaction that is not replicable. I realized early on in this project that emotional obsolescence and functional obsolescence are often out of sync, so that we have things that are broken but still emotionally valuable, and equally problematic, we have things that are emotionally obsolete but that work perfectly. Our landfills are dense with both these types of items — items with residual, unexploited value. And when we look at the problems of designing for sustainability, I think we can’t ignore that just dealing with biodegradability or disassembly or planned obsolescence is not enough. Truly sustainable design takes emotional value into account too.

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It occurred to me as I looked at the Christmas tree that objects trigger positive emotion and fit into our emotional lives in different ways. Some are intense and euphoric, like a new gadget; these occupy significant but transitory spaces in our hearts. Others are joyful: they elicit strong feeling, though less intense, that comes and goes in waves. These things are repeatedly joyful throughout long periods, or even our entire lives. And then there are contentment objects — things that give us a low-level glow, a soft, pleasurably feeling of security. These objects are not the ones we desperately covet, but our emotional bond with them is durable. A antique chair or soft rug might be an example of this kind of object.

No kind of object is inherently better than any other, but just like a balanced emotional life, we need to keep things in healthy proportion. A sane emotional life has lots of contentment, some joy, and occasional encounters with ecstatic novelty. Our object lives should probably be similarly balanced. Lots of things that are soothing and make us feel good, a bunch of wonderful things that are truly joyful, that make us smile whenever we encounter them, and the occasional transitory novelty. The thing is that each of these categories of objects has different design imperatives from an aesthetic and a material standpoint. Gadgets, whose emotional character is intense but emotional life cycle is short, have the aesthetics right (sleek, sharp, and über-shiny), but the material wrong. These objects should be totally transient in their design, able to fit seamlessly back into the biological and technical cycles McDonough and Braungart propose in Cradle to Cradle. Other objects that have more lasting emotional relevance need not worry as much about end-of-life issues, but should be designed for durability, so that they can be maintained and passed on.

Misalignment between physical design and emotional character is rampant. The Christmas tree, which started me down this whole line of thinking, is a perfect example. 33-36 million Christmas trees are “produced” (um, cut down?) in the US each year, and another 50-60 million in Europe. The tree’s emotional character is joyful, its appeal recurring at the same level and at precisely the same time each year. But, its design is out of step with that character, because (practically speaking) it must be killed to be transported, and it cannot be preserved or stored. This creates huge waste. What’s needed (if we were going to design one from scratch) is a Christmas tree that lasts forever and yet shrinks down very small for storage. It also needs to have all the multisensory appeal of a real tree, and perhaps a kind of quirkiness that makes it look different every year. And best of all it would be size-adjustable, so that it could grow with a family as they move between homes over the years. Or, another way to design it might be to create a system of local tree farms that minimize transportation cost and waste, paired with a system for using the discarded trees that somehow extracts value from them.

These might be silly approaches, but the point I’m trying to make is serious — namely that emotional life cycles can serve as a guide to product life cycles, telling us what is appropriate aesthetically and materially in design. My ideas on this are still evolving, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

{Photos via Christmas tree}

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