UA prof: We can design places for happiness and health

2013-10-31T16:15:00Z 2013-10-31T20:36:05Z UA prof: We can design places for happiness and healthBy Maya L. Kapoor Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Looking for happiness? A view of nature, whether it’s a backyard panorama of the Catalina Foothills or a workplace window overlooking a parking-lot mesquite, helps us feel happy. Likewise, smells like lavender improve our mood, and relaxing music lowers our heart rate.

According to Dr. Esther Sternberg, in our everyday wonderings about what happiness is, sometimes we forget to consider where happiness is. “Elements of place can induce endorphins and stimulate dopamines, which are good for the immune system and the heart,” said Sternberg, a professor of medicine and research director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She is also the founding director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing.

Sternberg spoke about research on the place-happiness connection, and how it can be applied to designing better spaces, on Wednesday night at the Fox Tucson Theatre as part of the Happiness Downtown Lecture Series. The UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences sponsors the free series.

Stresses in the environment cause the brain to release stress hormones. With chronically high cortisol and adrenalin, “your immune system can’t do its job,” Sternberg said. A suppressed immune system can lead to more infections, faster chromosomal aging and even faster cancer cell growth.

In one study Sternberg described, patients recovering from gallbladder surgery healed faster and required less pain medication if they had a view of trees from their hospital room windows. In another landmark study, residents of Chicago public housing with views of trees were happier overall than residents with views of brick walls.

According to Sternberg, aspects of space that cause stress include loud noise, bad smells, crowding, poor lighting and mazes.

Sound familiar? “How many people think of hospitals as calming, soothing, spalike spaces?” Sternberg asked and was answered by much laughter.

Her goal is to ask that question and not get any laughs. Hospitals like Tucson’s Diamond Children’s already incorporate design aspects that promote healing, including play areas for children and mountain views for waiting parents.

“Space around you can affect your happiness and well-being even if you’re not conscious of it,” Sternberg said.

Luckily, it’s easy to apply Sternberg’s findings to personal happiness. “You can create your own happy place,” Sternberg said.

No window? Even a photograph of nature makes a difference.

Contact UA creative writing graduate student Maya L. Kapoor at

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About this blog

"Happiness Tucson" shares research from the social and behavioral sciences on happiness and relates it to Tucson. It is facilitated by the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, one of the largest colleges at the UA with approximately 6,000 majors in 20 different departments including sociology, communication, political science, anthropology, and history — among others.

The social and behavioral sciences are dedicated to understanding people and their connections — with each other, the world around them, and their pasts — and using that knowledge to help make communities healthier and more vibrant.

The UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences is on the UA campus in the Douglass Building. Please visit the college's website or find it on Facebook. To make suggestions for topics for this blog or to get more information, email

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