Not all happiness is equally good for you, and our bodies know it at a molecular level.

According to new research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the sense of well-being we get from a noble purpose may give cellular health benefits, but simple self-gratification might have negative effects, in spite of an overall sense of happiness.

“Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a ‘hedonic’ form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic,’ [u-DY-moh-nick] form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” wrote Professor Barbara L. Fredrickson and her team.

Think of the difference, for example, between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project, she said. Both give us a sense of happiness, but each is experienced very differently in the body’s cells.

“We know from many studies that both forms of well-being are associated with improved physical and mental health, beyond the effects of reduced stress and depression,” Fredrickson said. “But we have had less information on the biological bases for these relationships.”

Hedonic vs. Eudaimonic Well-being

The researchers examined the biological influence of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being through the human genome. They were interested in the pattern of gene expression within people’s immune cells.

Past work by a collaborating team from the University of California at Los Angeles had concealed a systematic shift in gene expression linked with chronic stress, a shift “characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation” that are implicated in a wide variety of human ills, including arthritis and heart disease, and “decreased expression of genes involved in … antiviral responses,” the study noted.

UCLA’s Steven W. Cole and his colleagues coined the phrase “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” or CTRA to describe this shift. In short, the functional genomic fingerprint of chronic stress sets us up for illness, Fredrickson said.

But if all happiness is created equal, and equally opposite to ill-being, then patterns of gene expression should be the same regardless of hedonic or eudaimonic well-being. The researchers found this was not the case.

Yes, eudaimonic well-being was associated with a major decrease in stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. By 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.

Fredrickson found the results surprising initially, since the study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being. One suggested possibility is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories.

“Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,” she said.

“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.”


Barbara L. Fredrickson, Karen M. Grewen, Kimberly A. Coffey, Sara B. Algoe, Ann M. Firestine, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, and Steven W. Cole. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being PNAS, July 29, 2013 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110

_ photo: Krista Grinberga/flickr_

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