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Not All Happiness Is Created Equal, Researchers Say

In the popular imagination, all happy people have increased chances of living healthy and fulfilling lives. However, according to the results of a new study published in July 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not all types of happiness have the same beneficial effects on mental and physical health. People who focus their happiness outward apparently improve their mental and physical well-being, while people who focus their happiness on self-gratification apparently gradually decrease their mental and physical well-being.

Happiness Basics

Outward-directed happiness is known more technically as eudaimonic happiness, the authors of a 2008 report in the Journal of Happiness explain. As a rule, people who pursue this type of happiness gain a sense of well-being from doing such things as improving aspects of themselves, contributing to their communities, deepening their understanding of other people and cultures, and identifying with the “bigger picture” of humanity and human endeavors. Happiness focused on self-gratification is also known as hedonic happiness. People who pursue this type of pleasure gain a sense of well-being from doing such things as eating foods they enjoy, seeking sexual satisfaction or otherwise fulfilling personal desires.

Chronic Stress and Mental Health

Chronic stress is the term for ongoing stress that doesn’t give the mind and body time to recuperate sufficiently. This inability to recuperate produces significantly negative effects over time, since stress has a taxing effect on numerous body systems, including the nervous system and the endocrine (hormone) system. Unless countered successfully, chronic stress increases the odds that you will alter your normal body and brain function and develop anxiety, depression or insomnia. When any one of these problems lasts for a certain amount of time or has a certain level of emotional and physical impact, it qualifies as a diagnosable mental health condition according to guidelines established by the American Psychiatric Association. Other problems associated with the long-term impact of chronic stress include obesity and heart disease. Both children and adults at all levels of society can potentially develop a chronic stress-related ailment.

New Findings

Scientific researchers can measure the effects of chronic stress by measuring the body’s tendency to develop swelling or inflammation. Usually, inflammation is a short-term event that provides protection against injury or infection. However, long-term inflammation can significantly damage human health and well-being by disrupting normal cell function. In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of North Carolina and the UCLA assessed the levels of inflammation present in a group of 80 adults who were free from any obvious signs of poor health. The researchers also questioned them about their definitions of happiness and the ways in which they pursued happiness. All of the study participants expressed a self-perceived sense of happiness and well-being. However, after reviewing their findings, the study’s authors concluded that people who have an outward-focused (i.e., eudaimonic) definition of happiness generally have lower-than-average levels of chronic stress-related cell inflammation. On the other hand, people who have an inward-focused (i.e., hedonic) definition of happiness generally have higher-than-average levels of chronic stress-related cell inflammation. These conclusions strongly indicate that, regardless of their beliefs in their own well-being, people who focus their happiness on self-gratification may actually be building up stress levels that could eventually trigger substantial mental and physical health problems.


The authors of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences were surprised by their findings, and don’t know for sure why happiness focused on self-gratification has such a potential for contributing to negative mental and physical health outcomes. However, they believe that relying on self-gratification for happiness may be similar to eating junk food. While this type of food tastes good on the way down, it doesn’t add anything positive to the ability to support life and maintain the body’s various internal systems. Similarly, inward-focused happiness may provide a short-term sense of fulfillment while failing to meet the deeper requirements of the human psyche. Conversely, outward-focused happiness may decrease mental and physical health risks by providing just the type of “nutrition” the psyche needs to grow strong and hardy.

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