How Happiness Can Be Actually Be Unhealthy For You

It seems counterintuitive that happiness could be anything but good for you. Right? Turns out that researchers classify happiness as falling into two categories.

Eudaimonic happiness is the happiness that comes from meaningful pursuits, doing and being good, and aspiring to have a rich, full life with deep relationships, altruism, and purposeful self-expression. Studies have linked it to many positive health effects, including less reactivity to stress, less insulin resistance, higher good cholesterol levels, better sleep, and brain activity patterns linked to decreased levels of depression.

Hedonic happiness, as you might have guessed, is the happiness that comes from seeking pleasure or goal fulfillment simply for the good feelings and the sake of pleasure itself. It’s just being here for the party. Simply being happy in this way – with little sense of personal meaning, may be bad for your body, even though you’re happy.

Happiness vs Meaning

study, published in the Journal Of Positive Psychology in 2013, determined that while both happiness and meaning do overlap, they are distinctly differing things impacting your body differently. Researchers determined that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior, and a sense of meaning in life is found with selfless “giving” behavior. The researchers determined that leading a happy life is associated with being a taker and a relatively shallow, self-absorbed life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing situations are avoided. On the other hand, living a meaningful life corresponds with a sense of satisfaction that comes from contributing to others or to society in some bigger way.

Being happy is about meeting your own needs or desires and feeling good. Meaning is about contributing to others or to society, which may or may not lead to happiness.

A different study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, determined that the participants who were happy but had little to no sense of meaning in their lives exhibited the same gene expression patterns as people who were responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people, without meaning, were preparing them for bacterial threats by activating their pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is associated with major illnesses and various cancers.

A more beneficial gene expression pattern has been associated with meaningfulness. People whose levels of happiness and meaning line up, and people who have a strong sense of meaning but aren’t necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the same stress response. Their bodies were not preparing them for the bacterial infections that a person encounters when they’re alone or in trouble. Their bodies were bolstering their immune systems preparing for the viral infections you’re exposed to when around other people.

Happiness Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health

Turns out that too much happiness can be bad for your mental health too. A 2008 meta-analysis (a study summarizing the results of a lot of other studies) looked at the relationship between mood and creativity and found that when people experienced intense and perhaps overwhelming amounts of happiness, their creativity declined. Maybe this is validation for the suffering artist? Other research found that certain kinds of happiness can hinder a person’s ability to connect with others at times.

Another study, determined that excessive positive feelings can lead to risk-taking behaviors, excess alcohol and drug use, binge eating, and may lead a person to ignore danger. Even just striving to feel cheerful might make you less happy and according to research, the more someone pursues being happy, the more they will probably end up feeling disappointed.

Can You Have Both?

Psychiatrist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote,

…it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’

People whose lives have high levels of meaning may do so at the expense of their happiness. Because meaning seekers get involved in something bigger than themselves, they also experience more worry and have higher levels of stress and anxiety than their happier counterparts. Having children, for example, gives someone’s life more meaning, but parents have been shown to have lower happiness levels.

The same Journal of Psychology study, found that happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, and just as with all emotions, its positive effect and feelings are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness, but not with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present and the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers wrote. Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.

Don’t Throw Out Your “Get Happy” Books Just Yet

So, it’s not realistic or even healthy to aspire to just to feel good or only have good things happen in your life, but don’t throw out your “in-the-moment-get-happy” tools and books. These have merit, especially if you have depressive or anxious tendencies. Happiness with meaning and in moderation is best, as is accepting life as it comes – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about finding balance.

As with anything in life, the goal here is to find a balance that works FOR YOU.

image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bakerella/

10 Comments

  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    I always find your articles fascinating, @Debbie. I’m definitely a meaning type. Regular happiness is secondary for me, but I’m happy to have it in my life as well. I realize life is complex and will always have some bumps. How we choose to perceive can make all the different in the world.

    • This surprised and interested me too, Sandra. I think, as I’ve aged I value meaning and the bigger picture more. I definitely don’t need in-the-moment happiness, but it is fun, at times, too!

  2. Very interesting article Debbie! I’ve always thought that contentedness was a true happiness not unlike the meaningful happiness. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I’ve experienced that true happiness lies in me and that what is called ‘happiness’ for the getting of ‘things’ never lasts that long and probably isn’t true happiness at all. Oftentimes my happiness is linked to bursting with gratitude for life and love and joy. It’s an interesting topic, Debbie. You definitely share things worth pondering. 🙂

    • I thought it was interesting too, Elle. For too much of my life, I pursued hedonic happiness…and it did not make me happy! (or healthy)

  4. Magnum McMillan Reply

    It’s an interesting theory but IMHO the black and white choice between “Happiness vs. Meaning” seems to be incomplete. Yes, there are givers and there are takers. There is meaning in personal achievement and satisfaction. But other people do not determine your life or happiness, only you can do that. Happiness is not acquired like a box of detergent, or automatically achieved by meaningful (i.e. social) interaction.

    Thank you for providing a different perspective on the topic. As you stated, its all about finding a “personal” balance.

    • Magnum,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree totally with your sentiments and hope that this article does not come across as it being a black and white choice, happiness vs meaning. It is most certainly possible to have both, whatever that may look like to you! 🙂

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