EducationGeneral Health

How Happiness Can Improve Healthcare

The Oxford English dictionary defines happiness as “the state of pleasurable contentment of mind; deep pleasure in or contentment with one’s circumstances.” In positive psychology, happiness is approached in three ways: as a global assessment of life and its facets, a recollection of past emotional experiences, and an aggregation of multiple emotional reactions across time. 

Generally speaking, happiness involves three components – pleasure, satisfaction, and emotion.

But happiness goes beyond being a state or a feeling. From a neuroscientific perspective, happiness is linked to the activation of specific brain regions and the release of certain neurotransmitters.  

With several views and theories on happiness, one thing remains undisputed, and that is its contribution to the overall well-being of humans. Some of the benefits associated with happiness include longevity, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, and accelerated recovery. In blue zones like Okinawa, which is known for centenarians, it is reported that they live very happy and physically healthier lives with a low risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Studies have also shown that the happier a patient is, the less pain they tend to feel, and the faster they recover. 

But how does happiness work to improve health and well-being? What brain processes are involved? In this article, we’ll be diving into the neuroscience of happiness to better understand how happiness works in the brain and how to integrate happiness into the nursing practice, transforming healthcare into a space where healing is accompanied by laughter, hope, and happiness.

The Neuroscience of happiness

Happiness in the human brain stems from activity in the reward and motivation systems of the brain. Neuroscience studies have shown that specific brain regions like the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system as well as certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins play major roles in the control of happiness in the brain.

Key neurotransmitters

  • Dopamine: often dubbed the “feel-good hormone” or the “happy hormone,” dopamine is an important part of the reward system that contributes to feelings of happiness, pleasure, and motivation. It is released during pleasurable activities or goal achievement.
  • Serotonin: this serves as a mood regulator and helps in reducing stress. It can be released by exposure to sunshine, healthy diets, or physical activities.  
  • Oxytocin: dubbed the “love hormone,” oxytocin is released during social interactions, acts of kindness, or recollection of loving memories. It helps in the formation of social bonds.
  • Endorphins: help to inhibit pain and are often referred to as natural painkillers. They are released during pleasurable activities like exercise, laughter, dancing, or meditation.

Brain regions that process and control happiness

  • Prefrontal cortex: the front part of the brain involved in higher-order cognitive functions, decision-making, and emotional regulation. It assigns meaning to experiences, leading to an appreciation of experiences and fostering positive practices and mindset.
  • Limbic system: this can be seen as the emotion-processing center of the brain. Its primary function is to process and regulate emotions. It also helps in the formation of memories, sexual stimulation, and learning. It is made of the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, and the basal ganglia. While these structures all contribute to how emotions are processed in the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus play major roles in happiness. The amygdala is a small part of the brain that processes emotions. It evaluates stimuli and assesses their emotional valence. The hippocampus helps in forming memories about experiences.

How happiness works in the brain 

When a person experiences something joyful, such as receiving praise or spending time in nature, the amygdala evaluates the situation and assesses it as positive, triggering dopamine release. This results in feelings of pleasure and motivates the repeat of such activities. Meanwhile, the hippocampus forms a memory of the event, associating it with happiness. The prefrontal cortex integrates this information and generates deeper emotions like gratitude and joy, fostering a positive mindset. Additionally, activities like social interaction, physical activity, and sunshine trigger the release of oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, further enhancing the feeling of happiness.

Integrating happiness into healthcare 

Many studies have shown that a happy patient is a healthier patient. Happiness also plays a key role in preventive medicine. Some of the health benefits of happiness include:

  • Stronger immune system
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Improved cardiovascular health 
  • Reduced pain and faster recovery 
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Better sleep
  • Improved well-being

Thus, there is a need to integrate happiness into healthcare. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman gives three dimensions that happiness can be cultivated:

  • The pleasant life: the regular experience of pleasantness 
  • The engaged life: the frequent engagement in satisfying activities
  • The meaningful life: the feeling of connection to a greater purpose

Some of the ways of fostering happiness include:

  • Physical activity (e.g. walking, exercising)
  • Healthy diet 
  • Quality sleep
  • Social connection (e.g. group interactions, spending time with loved ones)
  • Gratitude practice (e.g. maintaining a gratitude journal and reflecting on blessings)
  • Leisure mental exercises (e.g: reading, coloring)
  • Nature exposure  
  • Acts of kindness

There are a variety of ways that nurses can implement these practices into routine patient care. For example, nurses can have patients document three things they feel grateful for each day or can guide  patients through brief meditation sessions. Another approach is to encourage patients to write positive messages to fellow unit patients. One simple way to boost patient happiness is by scheduling outdoor walks, allowing for nature and sunshine exposure.

Rockhurst University offers a Master of Science in Nursing-Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner to those that are RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. The Rockhurst University PMHNP online program provides flexibility with the option to choose a full-time or part-time study and online coursework in addition to the clinical hours. It offers full clinical placement services in order to provide students with a seamless placement experience ensuring rotations meet University and National guidelines.


Happiness is important to the overall well-being of humans. Cultivating happiness not only improves the overall well-being of a person but also helps in fostering positive mental practices. Simple techniques like gratitude journaling, meditation, social interaction, and outdoor walks can go a long way in transforming medical settings into spaces where healing and joy coexist.

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