Ashleigh James  

The attainment of happiness and its contributing factors have intrigued scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and the public alike for generations. With scientific advancements and growing fields of academic study there is now a greater understanding of the value of happiness for good health and the role our spatial environment plays in attaining this. Now is a critical time to understand the potential impacts of this increased understanding and awareness of happiness, and to explore the remits of its institutional and architectural manifestations. 

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is anything but a recent idea; early Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle introduced thinking around well-being and happiness in their ‘Eudaimonia’ works, fourth century B.C. However the past two decades have seen a surge in the importance of happiness at the level of the individual, the nation and the globe.

Internet searches for the word ‘happiness’ have tripled since 1998[1], a recent survey identified happiness as the main driver behind videos and images going viral[2], Harvard now offers the first positive psychology degree, Google has appointed chief happiness officers, Gross Domestic Happiness may replace Gross Domestic Product in measuring a country’s success, and the UN has acknowledged the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal[3].

Driven by greater scientific understanding of the subject, commercial commodification of our universal desire to be happier, and a global shift in political thinking towards the importance of happiness, our desire for happiness is more present than ever. It is manifesting in the ridiculous to the radical: from the apps on our phone, books on our shelves and our pharmacy prescriptions, to our public policy and global political agendas.

The past century’s advancements in technology, neuroscience and behavioural psychology are facilitating the medicalisation of happiness, for the first time we are seeing an attempt to quantify happiness and its attributing factors as well as appreciating its role within health.

In 1948 the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as: “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition marked a change in thinking that saw emotional indicators along side traditional physical markers as a component of health. In doing so it placed well-being, and its component factor: happiness, within the remit of governmental responsibility under the wider umbrella of health.

As global political thinking edges towards the importance of a nation’s happiness societies are simultaneously becoming increasingly informed and articulate in their understanding of their own subjective view of health and happiness. The mounting importance of the ‘happy’ groundswell is seen in our current institutions and organizations as they adopt and embrace happiness in advertising campaigns, school curriculums, public health acts and company wellness contracts. In the UK we are seeing a reshaping of our healthcare institutions, both in terms of governance: with the 2012 introductions of Health and Well-being boards to the physical reshaping with additions such as the Maggie’s centres and adaptations of traditional layouts to improve well-being.

There is growing evidence and openness to the role that design has in happiness and well-being. Roger Ulrich’s 1984: View through a window may influence recovery from surgery[4] was pivotal to the growing field of Evidence based design and the influence of design on the individual.

“There is sound evidence for the health impacts of healing environments which can no longer go ignored.”[5]

As a result of this growing research the ‘happy’ groundswell is manifesting spatially, reshaping our office spaces, holiday destinations, homes, healthcare, commercial and public spaces.

In the NHS’s Five Year Forward View[6], published in October 2014, there is an overall shift of emphasis towards maintaining wellness rather than treating acute single episodes. The NHS hopes to achieve this through placing emphasis on public health and prevention, patient empowerment and community engagement.

With an increasing body of research supporting the importance of our environment on the healing process and a growing dissatisfaction with out current hospitals, we are on the verge of a new period in healthcare spaces that moves away from the post war institutions, towards patient centered healing environments driven by engaged and therapeutic architectural design.

Future predictions suggest a more decentralized model could be the key to meet the current health needs identified by the NHS and Department of Health. Through integrating medical facilities as components of a larger urban fabric and re- establishing a civic relationship with health provisions we could provide an accessible, ‘every day’ space for the promotion of health to better reflect current thinking.

“The transformation of hospitals into wellness centres could help to get rid of the terrible stigma that hovers over them, and change them into temples dedicated to the cultivation of healthy minds and bodies.”[6]

Our earliest healing spaces in many ways embodied such ideas, a lack of scientific knowledge placed greater emphasis on wholistic care of the individual, the spatial design became key to the creation of healing spaces. In the ancient Egyptian temple of Heliopolis, large openings allowed fresh air deep in the building and a quartz crystal in the temples’ dome split light into it’s seven colours each filling a healing room, this is one of the first recorded examples of colour therapy and the application of architecture as a contributor to treatments. The healing spaces were civic buildings of wellness.

With scientific advances this would all change, passive design solutions were being replaced by medicinal solutions: “The natural environment ceased to be a factor in hospital design…science and technology reigned supreme-all a hospital had to do was accommodate them in an efficient and cost-effective way.”[7]

Hospitals lost their civic presence, giving way to concentrated facilities for medical treatment, patients were elevated and isolated on upper floors whilst technological spaces were placed at ground level, the resulting connection to the city was purely logistical.

Our healthcare settings need to embrace the traditional ideas of the hospital as space that welcomes in the public if it is to successfully encourage and support the delivery of healthcare required by our future health trends. “Bring down the walls of the institution and let the community in”[8]

We are at a junction in time where the happiness movement has the potential to reshape and define our institutions both ideologically and spatially. In learning from the shortcomings of the institutionalising of physical indicators of health can the happiness movement create a new healthcare typology that addresses both individual and national well-being expectations?


1 Hotel-Dieu De Paris Hospital, 651
2 Smiley Face
3 Asclepion Healing Temple, Greece
4 You Tube Offices, Canada. Coca-Cola Advertisement
5 Paimio Sanatorium, Finland 1932
6 Happiness Powers at Play, Types of Happiness


1,2 -happiness-myth-Is-our-endless-quest-for-contentment-actually-making-us-feel-worse?. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 9.12.15]
3 World Health Organisation. General Assemble Resolution 65/309. Geneva; 2012
4 Ulrich R. View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science. 1984;224(4647);420-421
5 Wagenaar, C. The Architecture of Hospitals: Healing by Architecture. p.255. 2006
6 Department of Health. NHS Five Year Forward View. London. Department of Health; 2015
7 Wagenaar, C. The Architecture of Hospitals: Healing by Architecture. p.37. 2006
8 Wagenaar, C. The Architecture of Hospitals: Healing by Architecture. p.19. 2006