“I just want to be happy."

This is a common refrain amongst people who come into my office, and, it must be said, is pretty much what most of us think we want most of the time. But what does that really mean?

That is not clear. There are at least two different types of happiness. While these two forms of happiness may at times coordinate with one another, there are also often at odds. In fact, a new study indicates that not only are these types of happiness different, but our physical bodies actually respond differently to them. What forms of happiness are we talking about?  According to an article in the Atlantic:

•“Hedonic” happiness has to do with pleasure and being satisfied in an immediate sense (“hedonism,” of course, comes from the same root). It’s about how often you feel good and experience feelings like excitement, interest and enthusiasm.

•“Eudaimonic” well being, on the other hand, has to do with being satisfied with life in a larger sense. It’s about “fulfilling one’s potential and having purpose in life,” explains Julia Boehm, who studies the relationship between happiness and health at Harvard. How autonomous or self-sustaining you feel, how interested you are in personal growth, the nature of your relationships with other people, whether you have a deep purpose in life and your degree of self-acceptance are some of the variables that researchers try to measure to get a good idea of whether a person has eudaimonic happiness.

Okay. Well, what’s the big difference? From Science Daily, on a new study led by Dr. Barbara Frederickson:

"The sense of well-being derived from 'a noble purpose' may provide cellular health benefits, whereas 'simple self-gratification' may have negative effects, despite an overall perceived sense of happiness, researchers found. 'A functional genomic perspective on human well-being' was published July 29 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

“Negative Effects?”  What kind of negative effects?

Eudaimonic well-being was, indeed, associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. In contrast, hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase in the CTRA profile. Their genomics-based analyses, the authors reported, reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being.

In short, the CTRA profile refers to cellular change that occurs in response to chronic stress that increases the likelyhood of physical illness. In other words, our cells change in response to stress, and when they do, we are more likely to get sick. This tendency is reduced in folks experiencing a sense of eudaimonic well-being and INCREASED for folks merely experiencing hedonic well-being.

Interestingly, “hedonic” activities tend to provide a short-term experience of “happiness.” It is a relatively short lived feeling and can leave one with a sense of wanting. ”That was great, let’s do that again.” Often, great time and energy is then expended in the service of re-attaining that feeling state. I am speculating completely here, but I wonder if this “wanting” is not also a form of chronic stress, one that is periodically alleviated by the pursued pleasurable activity.

“Eudaimonic” happiness, on the other hand, is not achieved in a short-term manner. Activies that are associated with eudaimonic well-being are generally not done as a means to a happy end. They are done for their own sake, because they are meaningful and important. Consoling a grieving friend, for instance, does not generally bring about a hedonic sense of happiness, as it is painful and difficult. I wonder, though, part of why it seems to be associated with better health is that it does not leave us wanting and is more likely to lead to an experience of satisfaction, rather than one of ongoing desire.

As I said, I am speculating here a bit, the research itself does not go into wanting vs. satisfaction. But it is very interesting nonetheless and is very consistent with an ongoing theme of this blog, which is, essentially: be very careful how you pursue happiness, not all happiness is created equal.