How to Measure Happiness

April 20, 2011
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Nowadays, a lot of folks pursue happiness as if it were their primary mission in life. But what is happiness?

Nowadays, a lot of folks pursue happiness as if it were their primary mission in life. But what is happiness?

Philosophers tell us there are at least 2 kinds. There is so-called “hedonic well-being” which is short-term pleasure derived from things like a tasty meal, great sex or a day in the amusement park.  Then there’s “eudaimonic well-being” which comes from living with a sense of purpose, which is usually actualized by participating in meaningful activities like volunteering for a worthy cause, raising children or caring for others.

Scientists have recently joined their philosopher brethren in the analysis of happiness. Remarkably, they have produced evidence which suggests that people who are driven to achieve eudaimonic  happiness actually have better health outcomes than those motivated to achieve hedonic happiness. They are more likely to remain intact cognitively, for example. They even tend to live longer.

For example, in a cohort study of 7,000 people known as MIDUS (the Mid-Life in the US National Study of Americans), Carol Ryff and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have tried to identify social and behavioral factors that predict one’s ability to maintain good health into old age. The team has focused on sociocultural sub-populations known to be associated with poor health outcomes…things like low education level.

Ryff’s group showed that people with low education level and high levels of eudaimonic well-being had lower blood levels of interleukin-6, a bio-marker of inflammation that has been linked to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, even after accounting for hedonic well-being into account. Their write-up appears in Health Psychology.

As well, a study of 950 community-dwelling elderly folks linked eudaimonic well-being to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. During their 7-year follow-up of this cohort, David Bennett and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center found that participants who reported having less of a sense of purpose in their lives were at least twice as likely to develop the debilitating condition as those who reported a greater sense of purpose. Their write-up appears the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. 

A separate study of the same cohort revealed that people with a greater sense of purpose were more likely to be able to care for themselves, manage their money and walk up and down stairs. Not only that, but  they were 57% less likely to die than their peers who had a low sense of purpose in life. In both studies, the associations remained even after scientists accounted for other determinants of happiness such as depression, underlying medical conditions and financial status.

What explains this?
We don’t yet understand the cognitive and physiologic underpinnings of these associations, and even more fundamentally, these studies need to be validated by other scientists. That said, it’s interesting to note that some studies have found folks with high levels of eudaimonic well-being don’t handle emotional input the same was as folks who with low levels. For example, fMRI-based studies have shown that people in the former (but not the latter) group tend to respond to such input with pronounced activity in the pre-frontal cortex a region involved with goal-setting, memory, language and other forms of higher-order thinking.

It is possible therefore, that people with sense of purpose are more able to appraise their environment and see the positive side of things, says Cariem van Reekum of the University of Reading. In other words people like this think, “This event is difficult but I can do it.”