How Different Types of Happiness Affect Our Fundamental Being, Influence Genes

aristotle
The Western thinker par excellence, Aristotle, wrote at length about the philosophical concept from which the researchers derived their second type of happiness: eudaimonic well-being. Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Flickr

Did you know that different types of happiness affect individuals in different ways? And did you know that these different types can exert their influence on a cellular level, making us feel happiness down to our very genes?

Did you know happiness even came in different types?

New research examines the way emotional responses work on a genetic and cellular level. While previous studies have mapped the effects of stress and other negative emotions on such a level, little time has been spent on positive emotions like happiness, hope and pleasure.

Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotion and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, is the lead author of a new, groundbreaking study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I've been studying the physical and psychological impact of positive emotion for 20 years, (and) the pattern of results we found with this study completely surprised me," she told reporters for CNN. "I've known anecdotally that positive emotions impact us on a cellular level, but seeing these results have given us proof that there is a real difference in the kinds of happiness we feel and its potential long-term consequences."

The study divided happiness into two separate categories: hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being. The two types have different effects ­­­- both on a cellular and personal level - and are derived from different sources of joy.

The Hedonic Type

Hedonism is derived from the Greek word hēdonē, an ancient term that has persisted through millennia. Initially, it denoted a philosophical doctrine characterized by pleasure without consequence, roughly analogous of consuming something sweet - hēdys - without feeling unhealthy.

Eventually, puritanical thought and moral rigidity problematized this kind pleasure, giving the word the vaguely negative vibe it has today. Nowadays, it's often decried as a close relative of instant gratification.

The Eudaimonic Type

Like the hedonic, the eudaimonic stems from an Ancient, post-Socratic vocabulary used to describe moral ideals. That being said, eudaemonism largely subverts the core value of hedonism; this is a deeply political moral project, concerned with a good life rather than momentary happiness. It's derived from the Greek daimōn, "demon" - not the horror-movie kind, but the mighty spirit figuring in Cartesian thought and the thought experiments of thermodynamics.

Choosing the Right Type of Happiness

The study found that out of these two, eudaimonic well-being is significantly better in the grand scheme of things, as a dependence on hedonic happiness can trigger cellular reactions similar to that caused by stress.

 "Hedonic well-being is dependent on your taking self-involved action to constantly feed this positive emotion machine," said Professor Steve Cole, the co-author of the study. "If something threatens your ability to seek out this kind of personal happiness - if you get injured, for instance, or you experience a loss - your entire source of well-being is threatened. You are living closer to the edge of that kind of stress."

To avoid this, he recommends maintaining a reliable source of eudaimonic happiness.

"But if you find well-being in the connections you have to others and in pursuing something that involves collaborating with other people, if in that circumstance you get sick or injured or suffer a personal loss, that community you've worked so hard to connect to, they will help you get through," he explained.

In other words, while a piece of cake or new pair of shoes may indeed brighten your day, you should never lose sight of the lasting sources - those you truly feel, all the way down to your genes.

Loading...
Join the Discussion