Jump to content
What’s your favorite allnurses.com feature? Read more... ×

The Value of Joy: Why Feeling Good is Good for You

Nurses Article   (684 Views 2 Comments 1,928 Words)
26 Likes; 6 Followers; 28 Articles; 10,832 Visitors; 163 Posts
If you find this topic helpful leave a comment.

I was honored to be asked to speak on the value of joy at the pinning ceremony at which I recently received my doctorate in nursing. I discovered research about how positive emotions contribute to resilience, wellbeing and health. Though we can’t all feel joyful all the time, it is important to understand the value of joy and how to support this emotion in our patients and ourselves to promote healing.

The Value of Joy: Why Feeling Good is Good for You


When I was asked to give a speech for my upcoming nurse pinning ceremony, my first thought was, who am I to talk about the value of joy? But then I realized, this is what doctoral students do - we search the literature looking for evidence. I can't even switch laundry detergent without finding a minimum of three relevant, evidence-based articles, published within the last 5 years. In addition to my research abilities, I'm a joyful person. Mark Twain said, "To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with." I certainly have a joyful partner, and four silly, wonderful children. I seek happiness, like anyone else, but I hadn't thought to ask myself about value - why feeling happy is so important.

As you may know, the first step in any research proposal is to define terms. The dictionary defines joy as, "The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, a state of happiness or felicity, to experience great pleasure or delight."1

That's kind of a boring definition though - I like how one of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis (he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia) said it's "that sharp wonderful stab of longing - has a lithe, muscular lightness to it. It's deft. It produces longing that weighs heavy on the heart, but it does so with precision and coordination. It dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away. It pricks, then vanishes, leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it."

No matter what you call it: joy, amusement, serenity, happiness, contentment, gratitude -these emotions have a positive impact on our lives. But why, as Maya Angelou said, do "we need joy as we need air?"


The answer isn't immediately obvious. Take the English language for instance - there's only one positive word for every three or four negative words (I'm pretty sure my seven-year-old has said every single one of them). With non-verbal communication, it's easy to identify an angry, sad or fearful face, but positive emotions have no unique signal value - all share the same signifier, a smile. Anger, fear and sadness each elicit distinct responses in the autonomic nervous system, but positives do not. Negative emotions have an obvious adaptive value - if you are fearful, you run, if you are angry, you attack, if you are disgusted, you spit (I'm thinking of bad tastes here folks, not how you feel when your spouse leaves a wet towel lying on the floor.) But what is the adaptive value of positive emotions?2

As I dug into the literature of joy, I discovered Dr. Barbara Frederickson, one of the premier researchers into positive emotions. In her "broaden-and-build" theory (yes of course there's a theory, graduate students love theory as much as children love skittles) she posits that momentary experiences of mild, everyday positive emotions broaden people's awareness in ways that, over time and with frequent recurrence, build consequential personal resources that contribute to their overall emotional and physical well-being. Evolutionarily speaking, if you feel good, you are more likely to survive and pass on your DNA. Her research is providing a blueprint for how pleasant emotional states like joy contribute to resilience, wellbeing and health - an important idea for nurses, yes?3

One study showed that physicians who experienced positive emotions were faster to integrate case information and less likely to come to premature conclusions. In other words, a happy clinician makes a more accurate diagnosis. Negotiators who felt good, were more likely to discover solutions in a complex bargaining task (good news for hostages). Links have been discovered between playfulness and gains in physical, social and intellectual resources in monkeys, rats, squirrels, and even humans. When people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative and flexible. One of the most interesting studies involved interviews with people before and after 9/11 happened. Those with more positive emotions before the attacks felt more positive and less depressed afterwards. The tendency to feel more positive emotions buffers resilient people against depression. Experiencing positive emotion leads to a state of mind and a mode of behavior that prepares an individual for later hard times. They build enduring personal resources.


Frederickson writes of a study in which young nuns were asked to write about their lives. This was back in the 1930s and the writings were put away and lost for a time. 60 years later the writings were unearthed and scored for positive emotional content. The readers recorded instances of happiness, interest, love and hope. The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer - better than what you get for quitting smoking.4

Another study looked at the impact of emotions on the heart. You are probably familiar with the idea that stress can damage your body. Recurrent emotion-related cardiovascular activity appears to injure the inner walls of arteries and initiate atherosclerosis. In one experiment the researchers created an anxiety inducing activity. Participants were asked to create a speech in one minute to be taped and evaluated by peers. Participants were then shown a film designed to elicit amusement or contentment, a neutral film or a sad film. Cardiovascular reactions like increased heart rate, peripheral vasoconstriction and increased BP were measured. Those shown the positive films returned to baseline more quickly. Those shown sad films took the longest.3

Joy heals us. Our immune system is constantly listening in on our thoughts and feelings. Joyful people are more productive members of society. They aren't as likely to be absent from work, physically or mentally. They are more able to deal with crisis in the home, workplace or community. Valuing positive emotion is associated with life satisfaction.5


These are some convincing arguments for the value of joy - it makes us creative, resilient, happier, flexible, and enhances speed, accuracy and development. It's like joy can build the six-million-dollar human. If only we could write a prescription for joy, unfortunately, it's not that easy. Unless you live in Bhutan.

Years ago, the Kingdom of Bhutan developed a Gross National Happiness Index and now they measure the GNH instead of the GNP. They have accepted and legislated that human society benefits when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. According to the Kingdom of Bhutan, there are nine components of happiness:

  • Psychological well-being
  • Health
  • Education
  • Cultural diversity and resilience
  • Time use - work/life balance
  • Good governance
  • Community vitality
  • Standard of living
  • Ecological diversity and resilience5


To bring these components into balance in our own lives, we need to focus on individual actions: physical exercise, socializing, hobbies, deliberate changes in perception. The evidence points to changing internal vs. external conditions. There is a quote many attribute to Abraham Lincoln, however I recently learned he didn't say it first, but that doesn't lessen the importance of the saying, "Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be." The famous British poet, John Milton said it better, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

I'm not suggesting that we can all just decide to be happy. For many people, that is not an option. I get that. I am suggesting that small steps can bring more positive emotions into our lives.For me, positive emotions often come from the answer to a question I ask my students when they get frustrated with nursing school - a frequent occurrence. "Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?" Now, of course I would rather be both right and happy, but in the end, I choose happiness (though my husband might disagree). For me, happiness is a simple choice because I have the lower ranges of Maslow's hierarchy covered. I have food, shelter, clean drinking water and people who love me - which isn't the case for the majority of the planet.


As nurses, we can always do more to support our patients finding joy. As they find joy, they may also find healing. Our goal as nurses should be to find ways to experience more positive emotions more often. And though I have tried to make you chuckle in this article, the use of humor, laughter and direct attempts aren't always suitable. Instead we need to find other ways to support joy. Researchers suggest that the following ideas support joyful feelings.

Look for the silver lining; find benefits within adversity. You had to give meds for a nurse who called in sick? It was hard, but you also looked up a new medication and refreshed your memory on some other meds, meaning you're less likely to make an error in the future.

Infuse ordinary events with meaning, like having a special pinning ceremony to celebrate nursing achievements, or bringing a candle, table cloth and some real plates and cups to a lunch meeting.

Support mindfulness and spirituality - now's the time to try meditation.

Learn how to establish and maintain relationships. Stay in touch after you graduate, get together with coworkers, hang out more often, write a few actual letters.

Since serenity comes with feeling competent, search out opportunities to give that feeling to others - find ways to give power to disadvantaged groups.

Help others.3, 4, 5


I'm giving help others its own paragraph because it is at the center of Fredrickson's research. Gratitude arises from meaningful engagement in activities that benefit other people and the planet as a whole. When we help others, good feelings can also result in community transformation. People who experience positive emotions become more helpful to others. Giving help causes people to feel good about themselves, receiving help causes feelings of gratefulness, witnessing acts of help can also elevate feelings. It's a positive upward spiral. If this is indeed the case, then nurses should be the most joyful people on the planet because we are always helping others.4

Author Tom Bodett said, "a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for." If that is true, then I am all set, and I am so grateful to my family, friends, faculty and coworkers for supporting me in having these things. I will keep writing, hoping you will keep reading.


1. Joy | Definition of Joy by Merriam-Webster

2. How Does Culture Affect Our Happiness? | Psychology Today

3. Fredrickson, B. L. & Joiner, T. (2018). Reflections on positive emotions and upward spirals. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 194-199.

4. Fredrickson, B. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.

5. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness. (2017). Happiness: Transforming the development landscape.Retrieved from: HAPPINESS : Transforming the Development Landscape


Dr. Kristi Miller, aka Safety Nurse is an Assistant Professor of nursing at USC-Upstate and a Certified Professional in Patient Safety. She is also a mother of four who loves to write so much that she would probably starve if her phone didn’t remind her to take a break. Her work experiences as a hospital nurse make it easy to skip using the bathroom to get in just a few more minutes at the word processor. She is obsessed with patient safety. Please read her blog, Safety Rules! on allnurses.com. You can also get free Continuing Education at www.safetyfirstnursing.com. In the guise of Safety Nurse, she is sending a young Haitian woman to nursing school and you can learn more about that adventure: https://www.gofundme.com/rose-goes-to-nursing-school

26 Likes, 6 Followers, 28 Articles, 10,832 Visitors, and 163 Posts.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree with you completely, and I currently use this philosophy, but my happiest and most peaceful moments are when I am connected with God. It does wonders for me. And I was once an abused, bullied and neglected individual, but no longer.:yes:

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites