California Needs a State Department of Joy.

October 23, 2021

California Needs a State Department of Joy.

May 29, 2023

Investing in joy is an investment in sustainable community health. California can be first in the nation to fight the other epidemic in the news -- loneliness -- by creating a State Department of Joy. Its goal: to actively support and advocate for togetherness, quality human connection, and celebration.

I’m not suggesting this to be funny or flip. Loneliness was a major public health threat before the pandemic; it’s all the more serious now. In a recent national survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36 percent of all respondents and an unprecedented 61 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported “serious loneliness.”

When we address serious public health problems like loneliness, joy and play have to be part of our solution.

Joy is a great motivator in all areas of life. None of my older clients -- I’m an architect -- want to talk about safety, but as soon as I mention delight as an age-friendly design principle, they’re motivated to make all kinds of changes in their homes to help them to age in place.

So what would a State Department of Joy do?

A Department of Joy could take inspiration from cultures where celebrations and rituals are more integrated into daily lives. In Mexico City, for example, getting vaccinated is a reason to dance. To alleviate the fear of vaccination among the city’s elderly, Mexico City hosted Lucha Libre wrestlers and dancers at a vaccination site.

What keeps us from following Mexico City’s example and combatting slowing vaccination rates with COVID-safe, live performances at vaccination centers? In fact celebrations are proven to support and heal communities.

Mindi Fullilove, a social psychiatrist whose work explores the relationship between environments and mental health, argues in her recent book Urban Alchemy that celebrations create a feedback loop between hard work and joy, and are an essential element in urban restoration.

An extensive study from the Birmingham City University of 18 festivals across Europe, Africa and the Caribbean found that celebrations can also play a central role in creating more sustainable cities.

Joy is so powerful that even the anticipation of a celebration alone generates emotional health, according to a study published by eNeuro, a neuroscience journal.

A California Department of Joy could harness the crucial value of outdoor public spaces for physical and emotional health. These are the most democratic spaces we have: they are open to all and allow for a number of uses. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, they set us free to do what gives us joy, from standing on our heads and practicing yoga to meeting friends for a picnic.

The State Department of Joy could motivate outdoor community events -- cookouts, concerts, parades -- through a collaboration with the regional parks system and the department of public works. New rules of engagement could expedite permits for such events, and provide staffing, and free public transportation including paratransit.

In fact, the small informal and spontaneous interactions that happen on sidewalks and in local bars and cafes are crucial for our health and well-being.

A Department of Joy could put a priority on cleaning, repairing and maintaining existing outdoor amenities across all neighborhoods. It could support cities in institutionalizing the use of street space for pedestrian use and public gatherings that started during the pandemic, proving that it doesn’t take much to make way for celebrations in the streets.

In my own hometown, Oakland, California, I’d like to see a parade in the Redwood Bowl, a beautiful, large glade in Redwood Regional Park created by the Parks for the People campaign during the Great Depression. Let’s give public thanks to this park and the foresight of the people who established it -- and use the occasion to bring joy into people’s lives.

The constitution affirms a right to the pursuit of happiness. California can add to that a civil right to joy, replacing the epidemic of loneliness with an affirmation of togetherness and acknowledging that Investing in joy as part of the solution to serious problems is an investment in sustainable community health.

Susi Stadler is an architect, co-founder of At Home With Growing Older, and an Encore Public Voices Fellow.

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