The right kind of happy

Source: The Economist

THE Greek founders of philosophy constantly debated how best to live the good life. Some contended that personal pleasure is the key. Others pointed out that serving society and finding purpose is vital. Socrates was in the latter camp, fiercely arguing that an unvirtuous person could not be happy, and that a virtuous person could not fail to be happy. These days, psychologists tend to regard that point as moot, since self-serving “hedonic” pleasures generate the same sorts of good feelings as those generated by serving some greater “eudaimonic” purpose. However, a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her colleagues suggests Socrates had a point. Though both hedonic and eudaimonic behaviour bring pleasure, the eudaimonic sort also brings health.

Dr Fredrickson, an expert on positive emotions, has long known that happiness benefits health and leads to longer lives. Similarly, she knows that both hedonic and eudaimonic pleasures generate feelings that people describe as “happiness”. A simple syllogism, therefore, suggests happiness does indeed bring health and longevity. But, because of the overlap between the happiness-generating properties of both hedonic and eudaimonic pleasures, she had until she conducted this study found it impossible to determine whether both are able improve physical health and longevity, or whether only one of them can.

To solve the puzzle, she and a team of genomics researchers led by Steven Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles, recruited 84 volunteers for an experiment that examined genes associated with health while simultaneously probing happiness in a way that would tease apart hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. The team interviewed participants over the phone to make sure none suffered from any chronic illness or disability (four were eliminated this way). The rest were given online questionnaires in which they were asked questions that probed their happiness. These included, “In the past week how often did you feel happy?” and, “How often did you feel satisfied?” both of which were intended to assess hedonic well being. To assess eudaimonic well being they asked questions like, “In the past week how often did you feel that your life had a sense of direction or meaning to it?” and “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?” The answers to these questions could score from nought to five points. Nought indicated “never”. Five indicated “every day”. The questionnaires also collected information on participants’ age, sex, race, smoking, alcohol consumption and recent symptoms of minor illness, like headaches and upset stomachs.

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