The Science of Joy and Play

  1. Updates

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all experiencing a new way of life. While there are shining examples of bravery and selflessness, the reality for many is that the last twenty-two months have been ones of isolation, loneliness, and loss. As the prolonged state of uncertainty continues, we at Playworks are thinking about the importance of combating those feelings and choosing to focus on things that bring joy to ourselves and those around us. 

Joy can come in big moments like a wedding or a promotion at work, or in the small moments, such as a perfectly crispy grilled cheese sandwich, getting a parking spot close to your destination, or scoring a goal in the soccer game at recess. We often have many physical signs of joy – smiles, laughter, or even tears – but let’s take a deeper look at what’s happening in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are our brains’ messengers. They are chemicals that allow signals to be passed between neurons in the brain, and are ultimately responsible for every single thing that happens in the body, from feeling emotion to digestion to blood flow. 

There are two main neurotransmitters associated with feelings of joy and happiness: dopamine and serotonin. When we have a positive experience that elicits joy or happiness, these chemicals are released into our central nervous system, which affects other systems in our bodies. Our circulatory system makes our heartbeat quicken or face flush, and our autonomic nervous system makes our breathing pick up speed.

One of the most fascinating recent discoveries is that it’s possible to hack these chemicals in your body in order to feel positive emotions. According to recent research conducted by Dr. Isha Gupta of IGEA Brain and Spine, the simple act of smiling – even if it’s a fake smile – can release dopamine and serotonin into the bloodstream and create feelings of happiness and joy.


Another way to hack these brain chemicals is (yes, you guessed it) through play! Scientists have shown a link between play and dopamine release, and the need for play to foster social connections and practice self-control. On a chemical level, play is critical for prefrontal cortex brain development, which is responsible for regulating emotions and problem-solving. Recent studies also emphasize the benefits of play for adults, leading to lower stress levels and an increase in overall well-being.  


“Play is foundational for bonding relationships and fostering tolerance,” says Isabel Behncke Izquierdo. “It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity- diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, diversity of connections.”

Joy and play are critical for both children and adults, and we hope you find time for both this holiday season.

Looking for a way to hack into your dopamine and serotonin stores and experience more joy? Try out NPR’s Joy Generator for ideas, pick a game from the Playworks Game Library to teach at your next holiday gathering, or connect with our Partnerships Director Dawn Lavallee to learn more about how Playworks can support play for you and your community.

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