“The science of happiness” is a catchy and promising title that was recently used for a series of articles on Newscientist.com.
So I took a look at some research and found an intriguing report highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article “Is Happiness Overrated”. This article was about research done at the University of Wisconsin by Carol Ryff and Jennifer Morozink, et al. (1) .
It turns out that happiness is not only sometimes hard to find (personal communication), it can also be difficult to define. I learned that there is: 1) more than one kind of happiness and; 2) all happiness is not created equal.
Nor is it equally good for you.
Types of Happiness: Hedonic well-being is perhaps the type of happiness with which we are most familiar. Hedonic well-being is characterized by pleasure. Good food, good drink, buying that “it” sweater, or a new rototiller…all hedonic pleasures. They make us happy, instantly.
Then there’s eudaimonic well-being. Encyclopedia Britannica provides this definition: The Greek word eudaimonia means literally ‘the state of having a good indwelling spirit, a good genius’– “happiness” is not really an adequate translation of this word.
For the purposes of their 2010 Health Psychology study (1), Morozink et al. referred to hedonic well-being as “positive affect, happiness and life satisfaction” while eudaimonic well-being “refers to evaluative judgements about one’s purpose and meaning in life and whether personal talents and abilities are being realized”.
Both types of well-being have been found to have effects on mental and physical health outcomes, as measured by levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6). In one study, older women that scored high on eudaimonic but not hedonic well-being, were found to have lower plasma IL-6 levels (2). Another report showed “positive effect” (hedonic well-being) to be inversely related to IL-6 in women, but not men.
Morozink et al. (1) focused on “how education and psychosocial factors, acting independently and interactively predicted levels” of IL-6. They asked whether” positive and negative aspects of psychosocial functioning moderated levels of IL-6 in individuals with increased risk for physiological dysregulation due to lower educational status.”
IL-6 was used in this study because it stimulates production and release of other inflammatory compounds such as CRP (C-reactive protein) and fibrinogen (3). IL-6 was previously shown to be a mediator of the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) , CRP and fibrinogen (4).
MIDUS I and II: Study participants were from the MIDUS group, begun in 1995 with a sampling of Americans aged 25–74. Originally there were 7,108 participants. Data was collected through phone interviews and self-assessments. In 2004 the assessments were repeated. At that time, 75% of the study subjects were still available and are now part of what is referred to as MIDUS II.
Biological data were collected from participants that completed both phone and self assessments, and were able to travel to one of three clinical research centers for an overnight visit. Overnight stays allowed researchers to collect fasted blood samples. The final sample was 463 males and 565 females ranging from 35–86 years.
Results: Consistent with the authors’ hypotheses, study participants with lower educational levels also had the highest IL-6 levels.
But in findings that were unexpected, positive psychosocial factors were found to ameliorate any biological impact of lower educational levels. “Positive affect, environmental mastery, purpose in life and self-acceptance had the largest effects on individuals with a high school degree or less. At high levels of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, those with a high school degree or lower level of education appear to have comparable IL-6 levels to individuals with a college degree.”
The overall health benefits of happiness and living well have been shown previously (7,8). This 2010 report from UWI researchers shows that the health benefits are particularly remarkable for persons with less education.
The authors readily acknowledge other factors that could be relevant in the mix of socioeconomic status, psychosocial factors and health. For instance, it is important to consider how a perceived sense of control affects educational level of a subject. Social and demographic factors like age, race and gender may moderate the relationship between education and markers of inflammation. An example is the higher IL-6 and CRP levels associated with lower educational status of whites and blacks, statistics that did not however, hold true for Hispanic and Chinese individuals. Evidence is mounting that socioeconomic factors are linked to inflammatory markers differently for various demographic groups.
A Take Home Lesson: While we already know that many pleasurable activities are good for us, particularly intriguing to me is the research that points to eudaimonic well-being as a health-improving, possibly life-extending factor.
Going into a weekend, I find information on eudaimonic well-being the equivalent to a good thump on the noggin’ in terms of deciding how to spend limited hours. A choice between training dogs or shopping for new shoes? Eudaimonic benefits will come from dog training. Gardening or watching television? Gardening is the clear winner. Chatting over the fence with neighbors or vacuuming? Hmm, both will provide some longer term benefits; maybe a little of each.
What eudaimonic well-being are you planning for this weekend?
How about this summer?
- Morozink JA, Friedman EM, Coe CL, & Ryff CD (2010). Socioeconomic and psychosocial predictors of interleukin-6 in the MIDUS national sample. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 29 (6), 626-35 PMID: 20954777
- Friedman, E.M., et al.(2007) Health Psychology 26, 305-13. PMID: 17500617
- Heinrich, Castell and Andus (1990) Biochem. J. 265, 621-36. PMID: 1689567
- Friedman, E.M., Herd, P. (2010) Pshychosomatic Med. 72, 290-300. PMID: 20100883
- Chida, Y., Steptoe, A. (2008) Psychosomatic Med. 70, 741-56. PMID: 18725425
- Ryff,C.D., Singer, B.H., Love, G.D. (2004) Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 349, 1383-94. PMID: 15347530