Which type of happiness is healthiest? In the moment pleasure or overall life satisfaction?

The question of what determines true happiness has been asked by many philosophers and psychologists throughout time. Some people are firmly in one camp or the other and some believe that it is a balance between the two that is most important. Susan Peirce Thompson (professor of psychology) recently lectured on some research done by Barbara Fredrickson (professor of psychology) and Steve Cole (professor of medicine, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences) that looks into how these two types of happiness have different effects on health and the results are fascinating!

Pleasure in the moment is called Hedonism and is a sense of feeling good or having comfort or satisfaction in the moment. Overall life satisfaction is called Eudaimonia and refers to having a sense of meaning and personal growth in life or having a global sense of satisfaction when one steps back and looks at life’s big picture. The two are strongly correlated with one often leading to the other in a feed forward cycle.

In the research of Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole they asked people about their subjective experience of happiness in their life and had them quantify how much “pleasure in the moment” (hedonic) happiness they had versus how much “overall life satisfaction”(eudaimonic) happiness they experienced. They took the results of those questionnaires and categorized people as having more hedonic happiness (pleasure in the moment) or more eudaimonic happiness (overall life satisfaction).

This is when is gets really interesting!

They then looked at the differences in gene expression between the two groups. Most people understand that the genes we inherit from our parents determine our genetic makeup and hereditary traits like skin, eye and hair color. But what many people don’t realize is that there are a lot of genes that are turned on or off based on our diet, lifestyle and environment. Our genetic expression is not solely determined by the chromosomes inside our cells but also by whether that gene is actually turned on or not.

Well it turns out that different genes were expressed in the hedonic group than the eudaimonic group. In the hedonic group, genes for immune system regulation were turned off, and genes for inflammation were turned on. That is a bad combination! In the eudaimonic group, the genes for immune system regulation were turned on and the genes for inflammation were turned off. That is a much healthier state to be in!

So what does this mean to me? When I work with patients to address chronic health conditions I often propose diet and lifestyle changes that will support health and reverse these chronic diseases. In these situations, I am asking my patients to prioritize their eudaimonic happiness over their hedonic happiness. Instead of indulging in the pastry for breakfast which will make them very happy in the moment, I am asking them to prioritize their health goals and make a decision that will give them that overall sense of satisfaction when they take a step back and look at the big picture.

These types of choices present themselves to us in many different arenas of our lives – choosing sleep over facebook, choosing chores over mindless TV, choosing balancing your budget over shopping.

I’m sure that the debate over which type of happiness is best will continue but based on this science I have been finding it even more appealing to chase meaning in my life over pleasure in the moment. What do you think?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Dr Stoop

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