Photographed by Nina Westervelt/MCV Photo.
Being happy is, for many people, a primary goal in life. An obvious statement at best, a cliché at worst. That seems like the most basic premise, the easiest assumption, for our society — it's even a founding principle of the Declaration of Independence. But debating the definition of happiness is as old as the word itself. Is the pursuit of such a lofty emotional goal satisfied by achieving a pinnacle of personal financial worth by way of a mobile, merit-based, capitalist society? Or, are we beholden to something more "meaningful" in order to achieve that sometimes elusive feeling?
A recent study tries to pin down the different modes of happiness, and their various virtues, with hard data. For their purposes, the researchers first defined happiness in two ways: Hedonistic happiness, whch is about "feeling good," and eudaimonic happiness, which is about feeling like one's life has a purpose, a direction, and a profoundly positive effect on the world at large. Study participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking how often they felt happy, or that their life had meaning (among other questions). And then — here's where things get interesting — the researchers looked at the participants' genomes to see how they lined up with the health patterns of people who have suffered from chronic adversity.
While there were many people for whom the two kinds of "deep" and "shallow" happiness lined up, many others — 75% of participants, actually — felt that their feelings of happiness greatly exceeded their sense of purpose and value in life. Two of the study's primary authors, Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) and Steve Cole (UCLA), had a hunch that the subjects' self-reported emotions on happiness both examined and unquestioned would have a biological marker of any kind, and it seems they may have been right. They looked for the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that Cole has previously observed in participants suffering from emotional isolation, which causes the immune system to prepare for a bacterial attack and diminish defenses against viral threats. As Cole puts it, “if you have a long track record of adversity, it prepares you for bacterial infections. For our ancestors, loneliness and adversity were associated with bacterial infections from wounds with predators and fights with conspecifics.”
The results found that people who expressed significant feelings of hedonic happiness but little or no sense of meaning in their lives displayed that same pattern observed in victims of adversity — contradicting, in a sense, the common and increasingly-popular belief that a happy mind leads to a healthy body. It’s not the amount of hedonic happiness that’s a problem,” Fredrickson explained to Emily Esfahani Smith in a thoughtful piece for The Atlantic, “it’s that it’s not matched by eudaimonic well-being. It’s great when both are in step. But if you have more hedonic well-being than would be expected, that’s when this [gene] pattern that’s akin to adversity emerged.”
Of course, the definition of a meaningful life is about as hard to pin down as happiness itself. But what can we learn from this? Well, in our book, it's not necessarily about ditching your shopping routine or other such surface pleasures to join the Peace Corps (though more power to you if you do), but about consistently and carefully examining your life. It's okay to feel hedonistic happiness, and the truth is, you might not realize that your life is lacking in some kind of deeper substance until you think about it — which makes it easier to ignore in the long term. So, next time you feel a bout of existential dread coming on, don't brush it off. Maybe sit down with a glass of wine and let it wash over you for awhile, and if it motivates you to do something for the greater good, you might just get a free pass come flu season. (The Atlantic)