Happiness makes for better health. But according to a new study, not all forms of happiness are alike.
Researchers have long known that happiness and good health go together. Happier people experience less depression and stress, stronger immune systems, lower heart rates, and longer lives. But it seems that not all forms of happiness are equally good for your health.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, happiness that comes from doing good or fulfilling your life purpose may be better for you than happiness that comes from self-gratification or pleasure-seeking. The elation you feel when Andy Murray wins Wimbledon does not produce the same health benefits as the satisfaction that comes from helping someone in need.
The study, conducted by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, Steven W. Cole of the ULCA School of Medicine, and others assessed 80 adults for either “eudaimonic” well-being—the kind that arises from a sense of purpose or service—or “hedonic” well-being, which we get from having a good time.
"Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a 'hedonic' form representing an individual's pleasurable experiences, and a deeper 'eudaimonic,' form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification," wrote Fredrickson et al.
It's the difference, they explained, between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project. While both offer a sense of satisfaction, each is experienced very differently in the body's cells.
They found that on a molecular level the human body is able to distinguish between a sense of well-being derived from a profound, "noble" purpose versus simple self-gratification.
Study participants’ happiness was characterised as hedonic if they described themselves as “happy” or “satisfied,”. If participants said their lives “had a sense of direction and meaning” or “had something to contribute to society,” their brand of happiness and well-being was deemed eudaimonic.
The researchers also measured the participants’ overall health and depression levels, and collected a blood sample from each. The blood samples were tested to look for the pattern of inflammation, low antibody and antiviral genes that is expected in a person subjected to chronic stress, threat or trauma, and which is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, infections, and other poor health outcomes. This pattern is called CTRA (Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity).
Results of the study show that, while both types of happiness correlated with lower depression levels, only those people with high levels of eudaimonic happiness had a lower CTRA level, i.e. a better immune response profile. In contrast, those with high levels of hedonic happiness had a high CTRA profile.
In other words, happiness derived from leading a life full of purpose and meaning seemed to protect health at the cellular level, while happiness derived from pleasure or self-gratification did not.
Fredrickson said she found the results initially surprising since study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being. One possibility for the discrepancy, she suggested, is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories.
"We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those 'empty calories' don't help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically," she said. "At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose."
Volunteering increases lifespan
If true, Fredrickson and Cole’s results could explain the connection found in wellbeing studies between helping others and good health. Research has shown that acting in generous ways lights up areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, and can lead to positive health outcomes like lower stress and better cardiovascular health. In addition, several studies have found that volunteering increases longevity in older adults, especially if that volunteering is motivated by altruism and not personal gain.
Despite these results, Fredrickson and Cole don’t suggest giving up on seeking personal pleasure. Both types of happiness have emerged for a reason, they argue, with hedonic happiness probably important for motivating us to take action in the short run for our own survival, and eudaimonic happiness probably encouraging more social interaction and complex cultural adaptations, which ultimately benefit us too.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to increase our eudaimonic happiness when possible. Clearly, it’s in our own interest—not to mention society’s interest—to do so.
According to Fredrickson, it’s also within our power. “Finding happiness in a sense of purpose or meaning does not need to be grand or grandiose,” she says. “Simply making an effort to connect with others with empathy and compassion could make this shift in your day.”