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The Happiness Dilemma

 
Being Happy Is More than Not Being Depressed

Making the discussion even more interesting (but stickier) is the fact that happiness is more than just not being depressed. As Boehm says, “just because you don't have symptoms of depression or anxiety, that doesn't mean you are functioning optimally.” Psychologists have debated for a while about whether happiness and unhappiness are two sides of the same coin, or whether they’re unique entities.(8) Psychological “ill-being” (depression, anxiety, and anger) has been linked to everything from higher stress hormone cortisol to increased heart risk to increased belly fat to lower “good” HDL cholesterol.(8)

It’s not enough to not be depressed – being happy is what actually gives the physiological benefits that we all want to gain.

But psychological well-being has been linked to different aspects of health, as mentioned earlier, like inflammatory biomarkers and cardiovascular health, though it’s been studied less. One study directly compared the biological changes associated with well-being and ill-being, and found enough differences to suggest that well-being and ill-being are not likely two sides of the same coin, but that they are fundamentally different entities. This may explain why it’s not enough to not be depressed – being happy is what actually gives the physiological benefits that we all want to gain.

What Makes You Happy?

If you’re not the happiest person in the world, don’t panic. There are ways to increase your satisfaction in life and develop a stronger sense of the kind of well-being that could serve you well mentally and physically, now and in the future. Spending some time thinking about the kinds of things that give you pleasure might be the first step.

A couple of years ago, a team of researchers reported that the types of “American Dream”-type goals we often think of as being the ultimate happiness-inducers aren’t so happiness-inducing at all.(9)

By getting in touch with your values and finding ways to give back, you might, unwittingly, be serving yourself. Doing things that just make you feel good won’t cut it.

People whose goals involved personal growth and the community were much happier than people who sought money or fame. This sounds a lot like the hedonic/ eudaimonic divide. “By attaining the ‘American Dream goals,' [big house, fancy car, designer clothes]” said the study's author Edward Deci, “you are actually feeling less satisfied in the need for autonomy and feeling effective in the world [because you are dependent on external measures outside your direct control], and that leads to more ill−being.”

So it seems like going after the material goods that are so appealing – a nice house, car, or bottle of wine – may actually make us more psychologically impoverished than the “larger” goals, like personal growth and self-satisfaction.

This study underlines the divide between what we may think makes us happy and what actually makes us happy – and, by extension, healthy. By getting in touch with your values and finding ways to give back, you might, unwittingly, be serving yourself. Doing things that just make you feel good won’t cut it. “If you are living a full life,” says Deci, “you will experience a lot of positive affect [emotions]. If you want to know something about living a meaningful life, just looking at subjective well-being is not enough.” In other words, finding activities that have intrinsic value, and being a part of them – by doing work you believe in, volunteering, or helping out your community in other ways – is probably much more beneficial.

Choosing the Sunnier Path

In the end, the relationship between happiness and health is not simple, and there’s a lot we don’t know. It’s beyond the scope of this article, but we’re also learning that happiness, or more specifically, having a sense of purpose in life, is linked not only to physical health, but also to brain health.

For example, Alzheimer’s patients who have a sense of purpose in life have fewer symptoms (cognitive deficits) than people who have less purpose.(10) On the flip side, people who are depressed in their middle or old age are at higher risk of developing certain forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.(11) These relationships also complicate our understanding of happiness and health, and are worth keeping in the back of our minds.

The bottom line is that we know that there are strong relationships between health and happiness, life satisfaction, and purpose, but how it works is still being mapped out. Mental well-being, ill-being, social support, lifestyle choices, and physical health all make up a vast matrix of variables that influence and play off one another.

While researchers are still working on pulling apart these relationships, taking some time to get in touch with your purpose will likely benefit your health, not to mention make your day-to-day life more pleasant in the process. The coming years are likely to bring a much deeper understanding of what happiness actually is, psychologically and physiologically speaking, and this may itself result in a deeper understanding of what health actually is.

May 16, 2012
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