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Warning: Happiness May Be Bad for Your Health

If you’re searching for everlasting happiness, stop it.happy face

It might be bad for you.

Here’s why:

A recent article in The Atlantic explored an innovative new study by Positivity author and researcher Barbara Fredrickson and her colleague, Steve Cole.

Frederickson and Cole noted that, when faced with adversity, our bodies tend to go into threat mode. This tends to increase the “activity of pro-inflammatory genes and decrease the activity of genes involved in antiviral responses.”

What does this mean in plain language?

If you have long-lasting adversity in your life, your immune system prepares you for bacterial infections by ramping up your inflammatory response. And chronic inflammation has been linked to serious diseases including cancer and heart problems.

Why happiness (by itself) may be a bad thing

You’re probably wondering how happiness fits into this scenario.

To make a long story short, Frederickson and Cole looked at two different kinds of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic.

Hedonism is about taking to create happiness. Having a lot of money, avoiding problems, and even enjoying a meal can be hedonistic activities.

Eudaemonia, on the other hand, is about giving to create happiness. Using your money to help others, looking at problems as ways to learn, and being grateful for your food can engender eudaemonic happiness.

You can probably see that there is one big difference between hedonism and eudaemonia: meaningfulness.

Here is the important thing that the researchers found: People who scored high in happiness, but low in meaningfulness were found to have the same high-stress, high inflammation responses in their bodies as people who have suffered from long-term adversity.

Not surprisingly, people who had the same levels of happiness and meaning or even those who were low in happiness but high in meaning showed a deactivation of the adversity-stress response.

So, it may be that the pursuit of happiness by itself is bad for your health.

 3 ideas to make your life more meaningful

How do we create meaning in our lives to keep ourselves healthy and generate eudaemonic happiness – also known as well-being?

Here are some ideas.

1. Clarify your values. Knowing what you value can help you set goals and pursue activities that you not only enjoy, but that will bring meaning and purpose to your life.

2. Practice random (and intentional) acts of kindness. Doing something nice for others is always meaningful and will help you to feel happy, too. One of my favorite concepts is to practice “stealth” kindness: buy coffee for the person behind you in the drive-thru lane, pick up your neighbor’s newspaper from his driveway and put it on his front step, leave a note on someone’s car telling them to have a nice day, etc.

3. Think about your 90th birthday party. A great way to discern your values and create meaning in your life is to envision yourself at your 90th birthday party. All of your family and friends are there to toast your long life. What do you want them to say about you? Do you want them to say, “You always had your closets organized and arrived to work on time” or do you want them to say, “You have always been very kind to everyone you met, you put your family first in your life, and you mentored others to success in their lives”?

Not that there’s anything wrong with organized closets and being on time to work! But notice how the latter responses are more about who you are and what you stand for – the things that really impact you and those around you.

For more ideas about why values and meaning are important aspects of bouncing back in life, please download my free pdf, How to live a more meaningful life.


For even more information on how to bounce back in life, download my FREE ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.


Photo credit: Marc Falardeau



Warning: Happiness May Be Bad for Your Health

Bobbi Emel, MFT

Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel specializes in helping people face life’s significant challenges and regain their resiliency. In addition to seeing clients in her private practice, Bobbi is a well-regarded speaker and writer. Check out her other writing at The Bounce Blog.

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APA Reference
Emel, B. (2013). Warning: Happiness May Be Bad for Your Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Sep 2013
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