Perhaps it’s just about getting older, but as each year goes by, I feel less inclined to make New Year resolutions – too conscious of the many that have come in with a bang like a firework display only to fade into a whisper of smoke before the first week of January is gone.
However, some interesting recent research suggests that living a more resolved and purposeful life can make a measurable difference to our health.
Tom Jacobs, of Pacific Standard Magazine, reports that genetic researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Steven Cole studied the relationship between the activity of genes regulating the immune system, and forms of happiness.
Though the focus of happiness is as variable as people are, the researchers identified two main forms, which they called “hedonic” and “eudaemonic”. Hedonic comes from a form of moral philosophy which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic good in life. Eudaemonic, as readers of Plato or Philip Pullman might guess, refers to the guardian spirit or angel that guides us wisely and well; or, according to Socrates, the invisible plane in which mortals encounter the divine.
Fredrickson and Cole, being geneticists, are more interested in molecular physiology than moral philosophy. However, it turns out that both are equally complicated. Participants in the research filled out a questionnaire about their feelings and self image in the past week: happy, satisfied, having a sense of direction in life, having something to contribute to society, or “challenged to grow and become a better person”. Questions about health and about depression were also included.
Not surprisingly there was a strong overlap between the two types of happiness: both can flow from the same source, such as a rewarding job, a happy relationship, or being creative. Also not surprisingly, people who reported high levels of either form of happiness were less likely to have depressive symptoms.
At that point the obvious turned into the unexpected, as researchers compared the genetic results. People who reported more hedonic happiness also showed higher levels of a genetic activity associated with extended stress in the immune system. This activity promotes inflammation and reduces other responses to immune challenge (such as a virus).
The people reporting more eudaemonic happiness showed a ‘markedly divergent’ genetic response in comparison to their pleasure seeking comrades. Levels of unwanted genetic activity were lower; therefore their immune systems would function better and they would have less inflammation – seen as a culprit in a variety of chronic health conditions.
What could be provoking this genetic stress response in pleasure seekers who lack a sense of direction or purpose? They’re enjoying life and not depressed, so why are they physiologically at odds with themselves? Jacobs speculates that perhaps it’s because, consciously or unconsciously, we know that our pleasures don’t last and fear losing them (like the end of the school holidays looming ahead). I also wonder if there’s an evolutionary angle: pleasures that are selfish, even if not harmful in themselves, undermine relationships and ultimately the cohesion of the groups on which human survival depends. This is true in marriages and in families, in the workplace, in our studies, and in so many aspects of modern life. To me it makes sense that we were designed to live beyond ourselves, into something deeper, stronger and richer that demands more of us but also gives more back.
Whatever the reason, it looks as though the notion of an ‘inner wisdom’ behind conscious cognition might have a basis in physiology, even in our very genes. Getting short term needs met, feeling good, staves off depression and is an obvious motivator. There’s no reason to see harm in the simple pleasures of life. But when “eat, drink and be merry” becomes our highest good, we’re off balance and vulnerable to attack – physically as well as in other ways.
So whilst the effort of seeking out meaning and purpose, commitment, growth and self-worth might be less enjoyable or rewarding in the short term, ultimately it will not only make us happier and wiser but also healthier.
Storing up treasures in heaven? Definitely – but also here on earth. Good health to all our readers in 2014, may this year bring joy, fulfillment, good health and a new sense of purpose.