Hedonic vs. Eudaemonic Happiness
Surprising research shows that the content of your happiness makes a difference in the genes that make you healthy.
Even if we haven’t figured out how to occupate our lives—making the most out of every moment—our cells have. A study of 80 healthy individuals found being happy isn’t enough, it is meaningfully happiness that makes the difference in cellular health. Meaning and engagement in creating happiness predicts a different outcome in the genetic expressions of cells. Once again, scientific knowledge is catching up to occupational insights.
The two types of happiness the researchers looked at were hedonic happiness (a self-oriented pleasure derived from consuming things) and a type they called eudaemonic happiness (which is based on service to others with a sense of higher purpose). We all engage in activities that lead to both types of happiness. But in the study, the relatively few that derived the majority of their contentment from eudaemonic motives had the greatest expression of cellular change that predicts future health.
So meaningful engagement that leads to happiness results in higher levels of anti-body production and lower levels of cellular inflammation (considered to be the source of much of our disease). Of course the research is too preliminary to say that engagement produced the change. But this new research tells us one thing—it isn’t just happiness that makes us healthy. The source of our happiness matters. You can get all of the massages, fine food, and month-long cruises you want, but that pleasure won’t keep you healthy in the way that volunteering at the local homeless shelter can.
So life stress isn’t about what we are doing. It is about why we are doing it. It is about how we feel in the process of doing. The spiritual traditions, Christians and Buddists alike, will hardly be surprised at these findings. Evolutionary scientists might consider this the long-sought proof of the elusive altruism gene that raises us beyond our own selfish desires for survival. For you and me, it is one more proof of why we need to meaningfully engage. It is time to occupate our lives.