Pursuing a Life of Meaning

by Debbie L. Kasman in

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There has been a philosophical debate shaping Western civilization for over 2000 years. Hedonists, those devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, believe that happiness lies in feeling good. Aristotle and his “virtue” successors believed that happiness lies in doing and being good.  Is feeling “good” enough to live a fulfilling life or do people need meaning in their lives to thrive?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) says that happiness may not be good for us. In fact, they claim, it might even be bad for us. Researchers studied 80 people for a month and they found that happiness is associated with selfish behaviour while having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless behaviour.  It’s a matter of taking versus giving.    

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” wrote the authors of the study, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA. 

The researchers asked their subjects questions like, “How often did you feel happy?” and “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?” and measured each person’s “hedonic well-being” (pleasure) and “eudaimonic well-being” (virtue). Then they looked at how certain genes expressed themselves in each individual. They found biological evidence that genes express themselves differently in people who pursue a life of happiness than in people who pursue a life of meaning.

People who are happy but who have little to no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who respond to and endure chronic adversity. This means their bodies go into threat mode and activate a pro-inflammatory response that prepares them for bacterial invasion. This is not healthy because chronic inflammation leads to major illnesses like heart disease and cancer. Seventy-five percent of the study participants fell into this non-healthy “adversity” pattern. 

One-quarter of the study participants had what the researchers call “eudaimonic predominance.” Their sense of meaning was greater than their sense of happiness. The gene pattern of this group, and the gene pattern of those who have a balanced sense of meaning and happiness in their lives, show a deactivation of the adversity stress response. Their bodies do not prepare them for bacterial infection.  Instead, their immune system shifts forward and prepares them for viruses. This does not produce an inflammatory response in the body and it helps people stay healthy.         

The authors of the study concluded that it’s not the amount of hedonic happiness that is a problem. It’s that hedonic happiness is not matched by eudaimonic well-being. For good health, we need to aim for a nice blend of happiness and meaning in our lives – being happy blended with a healthy dose of being and doing good. For three-quarters of us, that means fewer self-ish moments and more self-less ones. 

This is a good reminder that when it comes to the self, “less" is definitely more.                 

Debbie L. Kasman

Author Lotus of the Heart:  Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul