Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.
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For at least the last decade, the happiness craze has been building. In the last three months alone, over 1,000 books on happiness were released on Amazon, including Happy Money, Happy-People-Pills For All, and, for those just starting out, Happiness for Beginners.

One of the consistent claims of books like these is that happiness is associated with all sorts of good life outcomes, including most promisingly good health. Many studies have noted the connection between a happy mind and a healthy body the happier you are, the better health outcomes we seem to have. In a meta-analysis (overview) of 150 studies on this topic, researchers put it like this: “Inductions of well-being lead to healthy functioning, and inductions of ill-being lead to compromised health.”

But a new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) challenges the rosy picture. Happiness may not be as good for the body as researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Of course, it’s important to first define happiness. A few months ago, I wrote a piece called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” about a psychology study that dug into what happiness really means to people. It specifically explored the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life.

It seems strange that there would be a difference at all. But the researchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors of the study wrote. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, "Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.”

The new PNAS study also sheds light on the difference between meaning and happiness, but on the biological level. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher who specializes in positive emotions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA, examined the self-reported levels of happiness and meaning in 80 research subjects.

Happiness was defined, as in the earlier study, by feeling good. The researchers measured happiness by asking subjects questions like “How often did you feel happy?” “How often did you feel interested in life?” and “How often did you feel satisfied?” The more strongly people endorsed these measures of “hedonic well-being,” or pleasure, the higher they scored on happiness.

Meaning was defined as an orientation to something bigger than the self. They measured meaning by asking questions like “How often did you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?”, “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?”, and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group?” The more people endorsed these measures of “eudaimonic well-being” or, simply put, virtue the more meaning they felt in life.

After noting the sense of meaning and happiness that each subject had, Fredrickson and Cole, with their research colleagues, looked at the ways certain genes expressed themselves in each of the participants. Like neuroscientists who use fMRI scanning to determine how regions in the brain respond to different stimuli, Cole and Fredrickson are interested in how the body, at the genetic level, responds to feelings of happiness and meaning.

Cole’s past work has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern. When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.

Presented by

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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