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You may believe that if only you were happier, you’d have a better relationship with food. But what makes for happiness—wealth, genetics, a great job, a loving family? You might be surprised to know it’s none of the above and readily available to you.
According to a University of North Carolina study, happiness comes from pursuing the goal of helping others (“A genetic guide to true happiness,” The Week, 9/13/13). This study involved 80 volunteers who had their blood drawn after being asked the frequency that they felt “hedonistic pleasure” and/or deriving a sense of purpose in life by contributing to their community. Researchers found that “the genes of the volunteers whose lives contained lots of pleasure but little meaning were priming cells to express high levels of inflammation—which is linked to cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease—and a weaker anti-viral response to infection.” Seeking short-term pleasure (and what is non-hunger eating but a fast high?) worked against having good health. Alternately, participants who focused on community and service to others, “showed a pattern of gene expression linked to less inflammation and stronger immunity.”
Many disregulated eaters chase quick pick-me-ups—praise for a job well done, a lift from buying new items, a jolt of pleasure from success—due to genetic programming or modeling behavior after how their parents sought happiness. More likely, it’s a combination of both factors. Either way, short-term pleasure seeking isn’t serving their mental or physical health. It might seem paradoxical that helping others brings more happiness and better health than seeking pleasure, but that’s what this study is saying. Note that I’m not suggesting you stop taking care of yourself just to do for others.
Take a minute to reflect on how often you help others and how you feel when you do. Maybe you don’t enjoy it because you’ve helped others all your life and now want some pay back. Or you tell yourself you’d do it if you had time but are too busy. Or it seems like such a long shot for happiness that you don’t want to wait and prefer the rush of instant gratification. Now take another minute to think about how you could start doing more to help others—not for praise, but to give your life more meaning.
Doing so would fill that inner emptiness that drives many disregulated eaters, raise your value in your own eyes, and give your life more purpose. Moreover, research says that it could actually change you on a cellular level and make you happier in the long run. And when you’re feeling better about yourself and your life, your eating will improve.
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