Ahhhh. Imagine stretching out in your own private whirlpool spa, under the twinkling stars of a tropical night sky. Go ahead and add on some extras: You’re sipping vintage champagne. The spa’s perched on the deck of your luxury yacht.
Not your style? Perhaps you prefer lounging on the loggia of your Tuscan villa. You’ve just finished a truly gourmet luncheon and now you and your charming, erudite guests are listening to an aria sung by one of your guests, a famous tenor.
Or, how about you’ve just just chowed-down on a backyard burger, and are about to watch a game on the tube with your buddies?
According to your cells, there is absolutely no difference between these experiences: they are all pleasurably gratifying, plain and simple.
But, our bodies respond very differently to these kinds of pleasures than they do to pleasures such as teaching a child how to read, participating in a prayer service with your community, or harvesting your home-grown zucchini and sharing them with a soup kitchen.
Barbara L. Fredrickson, a Professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill calls the former kinds of experiences “empty calories.” And her study, “A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Well-being”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to back her up.
In the study, she explores the biological-response differences between hedonic (hedonistic or pleasure-seeking based happiness) and eudaimonic (happiness from a noble cause, like the zucchini-sharing, above).
The differences are
What Fredrickson found was that despite studies which show that happiness and well being lead to better mental and physical health, not all types of happiness actually benefit us. In fact, some types of happiness may be harmful to your health!
Eudaimonic happiness led to a significant decrease in the stress-related expressions in human immune cells. But hedonic happiness led to a significant increase in stress-related responses in the same kind of cells, and these responses included an increase in inflammation and a decrease in anti-viral protection.
We all need a break from time to time. But online and off, the media/our culture is constantly exhorting us to “enjoy” life in the moment. Get a facial or massage. Go on safari or swim with sharks. Slide between fine bed linens in our luxury hotel room. Sip a rare wine or plan an over-the-top sweet sixteen party.
But self-gratifying experiences have limited benefit, and according to this new study, may even be harmful to our health.
“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
So, you want to get happy and healthy, all the way down to your toes (and your cells)? Reach out, find community, pitch in, give big hugs, and connect.
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Last reviewed: 30 Jul 2013