Have you ever experienced a happiness so profound you felt it in your very bones? In fact, happiness goes even deeper than that—all the way to our genes. And, in a startling new discovery, researchers have found that different types of happiness affect the human genome in dramatically different ways, with potentially big implications for our physical health. “We’re finding that not all things that feel good are the same on the cellular level,” says Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, which was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Barbara looked at two different kinds of happiness. Hedonia is “in-the moment” happiness, the kind that comes from consuming things or experiences—a slice of pizza, a movie, a pair of new shoes. Meaningful happiness, what scientists call “eudaimonic wellbeing,” is the buzz we get from having a higher purpose, connecting to a community, being of service to others.
It turns out that while eudaimonia gives our biology a boost, hedonic experiences do the opposite, undermining healthy genetic expression. Under the scrutiny of lab examination, hedonic happiness looks a lot like adverse life circumstances such as poverty, social isolation or being diagnosed with a serious illness. “These results really surprised me,” says Barbara, who is the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of the books Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life and Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. “Hedonic happiness actually shows a pattern that’s similar to that which is seen with adversity or stress. We’re not seeing it at the same strength, but hedonia is looking like a little version of stress rather than the opposite of stress.”
In the study, volunteers completed an online questionnaire designed to measure their levels of hedonic happiness and eudaimonic well-being. Then the researchers drew blood and analyzed the gene expression of the immune cells in these samples. They found that the volunteers whose happiness was primarily hedonic had high levels of inflammatory markers—which are linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s— and low levels of disease-fighting antibody and antiviral gene expression. Volunteers who scored high on the eudaimonic scale displayed a reverse profile. Their robustly healthy immune systems were well-armed against infection while demonstrating little inflammatory activity.
Does this mean we all need to go on a fun fast to protect our genomes? Not at all. “What this work tells us is not which kind of happiness to avoid, but rather which one you wouldn’t want to be without, and that’s the eudaimonic,” says Barbara.
In the real world, both kinds of happiness reinforce each other. “Hedonia and eudaimonia go hand in hand,” she says. “What we know from past studies is that when people experience the positive uplift of hedonia they’re better able to go on and find meaning in their lives. And, that, in turn, becomes a durable resource. When times are tough you can touch base with the feeling that you’re a part of something larger than yourself and that kind of steadies the turmoil.
Shelley Levitt is a contributing editor to SUCCESS magazine. Her articles on health, beauty and well-being have appeared in Women’s Health, Fitness, WebMD and Weight Watchers magazines.