Happiness and physical health

By Donna Duggan

Happiness and physical health

Fascinating new research has recently emerged from the University of North Carolina in the USA showing that your physical health is influenced by what make you happy. Led by a Professor of psychology, Barbara L. Fredrickson, the research shows that if you derive your happiness from “a noble purpose” there are health benefits at a cellular level, whereas if your happiness is derived from “simple self-gratification” there may be negative effects on your health.

“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 and her colleagues in the study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [July 29].

It’s the difference, for example, between enjoying a good meal, and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project, she said. Both give us a sense of happiness, but each is experienced very differently in the body’s cells.

“We know from many studies that both forms of well-being are associated with improved physical and mental health, beyond the effects of reduced stress and depression,” Fredrickson said. “But we have had less information on the biological bases for these relationships.”

Past research has shown that there is a change in gene expression in cases of chronic stress where there is a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral response and an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation that are implicated in many diseases, including heart disease and arthritis. Fredrickson’s research should that eudemonic wellbeing was associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related gene expression profile, whereas hedonic wellbeing was associated with a significant increase in the stress-related profile.

What was also interesting from Fredrickson’s study was that everyone in the research who experienced both eudemonic and hedonic wellbeing reported overall feelings of wellbeing, even though it was just the one group that had improved health at a cellular level. Fredrickson suggests the reason for this was that people who experience more hedonic wellbeing consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories.

“Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,” she said.

“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 added. “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.”


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