Happiness, friends and values bigger than ourselves

by Aug 5, 2013Stress0 comments

As a few weeks of lazy holidaying beckons for some luckier ones amongst us, in this blog, the last for a while,  I find myself thinking about that old chestnut, happiness again, and  the Good Life, or Eudemia as the Greeks called it. I was struck by a piece of research that has just come out outlining 2 very different kinds of happiness, both of which have very different effects on our health and well-being. [1].

Analysing their happiness levels of a large-ish sample,  researchers split the group up in terms of whether their happiness was of a more hedonic kind (ie from buying something, having an exciting time) or a more eudemaic kind (from engaging in something meaningful and about more than just themselves, eg a passionate interest or a cause). The 2 kinds of happiness had surprisingly very different effects, right down to a genetic and cellular level.

People whose sense  of happiness and well-being derived from being motivated by a strong sense of meaning and purpose had lower levels of inflammation and higher levels of immune response and antibodies than those with high levels of hedonic happiness. In other words the good life, as the Greeks might have defined it, gives rise to emotional and physical health, a win-win situation.

On the other hand if we are motivated by a more hedonic buzz of immediate desire and wish to achieve or to consume, then physiologically this is not so good for us. It leads to  more inflammation of our cells, and worse health. This is presumably the kind of happiness that is promoted in contemporary consumerist societies, the buzz of acquiring something new, the thrill of success.

Those driven by values about issues bigger than them are also those who tend to be more motivated by what Kasser and others called intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivation [2]. Exrtinsic values include for example aspiring to expensive consumer goods, and being motivated particularly by how one is perceived by others. The opposite of extrinsic values he and others call intrinsic, meaning valuing a cluster of attributes like being community and family minded, being kind to others and living by deeply held beliefs. He and others[3], [4]  found that extrinsic values come with worse mental health, and now this study shows that they also lead to worse physical health. Not surprisingly intrinsic (eudeaionic) values tend to come with better parenting and better relationships.

As ever good relationships make a big difference to our mental and physical health but this is maybe not the kind of happiness that contemporary consumerist societies encourages. . As I go on holiday I was struck by another new study [5]  which showed surprising effects of eating lunch with friends. The effects go in opposite directions. Eating alone seems to sharpen our minds and increases concentration and cognitive skills, maybe what our employers need,  but eating with friends lowers stress and seemingly increases eudaimonic kinds of happiness. As I go on holiday I think I know what I am prepared to sacrifice for the next few weeks, but I also wonder if we as a society might be sacrificing  too much with the way we organise society and the kind of motivations that we fuel


[1]          B. L. Fredrickson, K. M. Grewen, K. A. Coffey, S. B. Algoe, A. M. Firestine, J. M. G. Arevalo, J. Ma, and S. W. Cole, ‘A functional genomic perspective on human well-being’, PNAS, Jul. 2013.

[2]          T. Kasser, The high price of materialism. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3]          P. Cohen and J. Cohen, Life values and adolescent mental health. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.

[4]          C. P. Niemiec, R. M. Ryan, and E. L. Deci, ‘The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 291–306, 2009.

[5]          W. Sommer, B. Stürmer, O. Shmuilovich, M. Martin-Loeches, and A. Schacht, ‘How about Lunch? Consequences of the Meal Context on Cognition and Emotion’, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 7, p. e70314, Jul. 2013.

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