The Right Kind of Happy

April 5th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Does living with a true sense of purpose improve physical health?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It might make intuitive sense that people would reap physical and psychological rewards from a greater sense of well-being and purpose – like lower risks for cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. But a Wall Street Journal article suggests that not all people who say they are happy reap the positive effects. In fact, people who relentlessly pursue happiness, or feel pressured to engage in activities that promote well-being, don’t get much benefit.

According to the article, the newest evidence from the field of “happiness research” (aka positive psychology) says that people who live with a sense of purpose as they age – such as raising children or volunteering – are more likely to remain cognitively intact and even live longer than people who are focused on achieving “hedonic feelings” of pleasure. 

University of Wisconsin researchers have been comparing hedonic happiness with so-called “eudaimonic” happiness, which is the sense of fulfillment people get from living with purpose, in order to monitor each type’s effects on physical and psychological health.  “Eudaimonia,” the article notes, is a Greek word used by Aristotle for “well-being” that has been mistranslated as “happiness,” leading to misunderstandings about what happiness actually is.

Among other findings, researchers found that those with greater purpose in life were better equipped to deal with everyday functions like housekeeping, managing money and walking up and down stairs as they got older, and they also lived longer than those with a low sense of purpose in life.

Meanwhile, people who seek rewards such as money or status aren’t as happy, said Richard Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester, and if people feel pressured to engage in activities that promote eudaimonic well-being, he told the Journal, they’re not likely to get much benefit. In fact, University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Carol Ryff said that fixating on happiness can “in itself become a psychological burden.”

In another study, David Bennett – director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago – found that over a seven-year period, those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

A few online commenters on the story scoffed at the research, saying it’s hardly newsworthy and based on common folk wisdom, but how harmful can it be to suggest that volunteering or taking care of others can make you happier, more mentally fit, and possibly even live longer? Do you take a cynic’s view of stories like these, or do you take the research to heart?