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What Makes Us (Truly) Happy?
As a therapist, I spend a lot of time talking about happiness. I’ve written blogs about it, posted numerous articles on it, and have a smattering of books on the subject sitting on my bookshelves for clients to borrow to learn more about the subject. Though information abounds about happiness, many of my dysregulated eating (and otherwise troubled) clients have problems finding and holding on to it. “Is happiness genetic?” by Jen Christensen (www.cnn.com, 7/30/13, accessed 11/13/18) helps us understand why.
There are two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. The hedonic type comes pleasurable experiences or instant gratification—that jolt or a bolt of happy which washes over you. This is the buzz we get from eating high-sugar/high-fat foods, shopping, or receiving a text from a beloved. The other type of happiness, eudaimonic, derives from a sense of well-being that arises from working towards and achieving goals which give meaning to our lives.
Researchers Barbara Frederickson, PhD and Steve Cole, PhD study the body’s response to happiness. Toward this end, they say that we also need to understand the body’s response to stress, a reaction that happens in our genes and involves cellular-level inflammation. This is why we feel tired and often get sick when we’re stressed. Their “study found that people who experienced the well-being that comes from self-gratification had high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression, a result similar to what people who are depressed or experience great stress have. The people who found happiness by pursuing a greater good had a lower level of this inflammatory gene expression and strong antiviral and antibody gene expression.”
Their conclusion is that there’s nothing wrong in seeking both types of happiness, but that you’re on a path of self-destruction if you pursue mostly the hedonic type: Relying on short-term gratification requires that we keep doing a behavior to feel okay because we may become unhappy or stressed when it’s not available (ie, we avoid using sweets for comfort or stop online shopping as a joy booster). Cole’s theory is that "Hedonic well-being is dependent on your taking self-involved action to constantly feed this positive emotion machine. If something threatens your ability to seek out this kind of personal happiness . . . your entire source of well-being is threatened. You are living closer to the edge of that kind of stress.”
You will never be truly happy by continuing to look for the quick fix. Healthy goals and connections, along with living a life of meaning are far better practices in the long run.