Two Kinds of Happiness (One Is Bad for You)
The field of positive psychology took a step forward with a new finding about happiness and our genes. In the past, genes were considered to be stable and fixed in how they affect the body, but now that the human genome has been mapped, this view has radically changed. The chemical activity of genes, known as genetic expression, is altered by many factors. It’s highly likely that genes are so fluid, in fact, that genetic expression changes according to a person’s thoughts, feelings, and moods. If that’s true, then saying something as basic as “I’m happy” could need genetic verification. Words are just words, but your genetic-expression profile is a fact.
This was underlined by the first ever study of genes and happiness. Researchers from UCLA and the University of North Carolina discovered that the genetic link to happiness cuts two ways. People who are happy because they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives showed positive gene expression in their immune cells, especially as it affected inflammation and antiviral response. This kind of happiness was labeled “eudaimonic well-being,” from the Greek word for happiness, eudaimon. By contrast, people whose happiness depends on consumerism and bursts of pleasure actually fared worse than unhappy people in the genetic expression of their immune cells, showing a tendency toward inflammation and decreased ability to fight viruses. This kind of happiness was labeled “hedonic well-being” from the Greek for pleasure, hedone.
What’s fascinating is that both kinds of well-being subjectively feel the same. As one researcher commented, ”Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently.” We can fool ourselves that we are happy, but our genes know better. Inflammation has been connected to a wide range of disorders from heart disease to cancer and is now a leading suspect in chronic illness in general, so this new finding isn’t incidental. Long before genetic studies arose, the Indian spiritual tradition described two paths to well-being, the path of wisdom and the path of pleasure, with the second being inferior. Aristotle was the first thinker in the West to delve into the roots of happiness, which he associated with a life well lived. For him, a life well lived implied virtuous action, which is very close to the notion of living with purpose and meaning.
Aristotle also made the point that defining happiness isn’t an abstract pursuit; it affects the things we do every day. All told, genetics and philosophy seem to converge on the conclusion that happiness involves conscious activity guided by principles. Simply hanging out in a good mood isn’t the same as well-being. Backing away to take a larger view, it’s evident that modern life is largely based on hedonism and consumerism. People feel good when they buy a bigger flat screen television, play video games, move into a bigger house, and so on. Developing countries are moving swiftly toward this mode of living, and as a species we are so addicted to consumerism that saving the planet from ecological disaster comes second. No one wants to give up their shot at the good life no matter how much the use of fossil fuels and the depredation of the environment accelerates.
It will be very difficult to take a turn away from hedonic well-being to the better kind, yet the purpose we should be living for is crystal clear: Saving the planet and insuring a future for coming generations. At the root of the Greek word for happiness is the concept of “thriving” or “flourishing.” A dying planet isn’t thriving, and if the carefully amassed data of the Gallup organization is correct, less than a third of people in even the most prosperous societies describe themselves as thriving. As the thriving index falls, it is also noted that the tendency toward rebellion and social unrest rises.
In short, happiness is just as crucial for human existence as it was thousands of years ago. A single genetic study isn’t enough to make us re-examine the pursuit of happiness. But at least it confirms that the world’s wisdom traditions knew what they were talking about.
Photo credit: Diggy Lloyd
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)
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