Happiness May Be Bad For You

Emily Esfahani Smith at theatlantic.com writes about the philosophical distinction that most psychologists make between happiness and well-being. Happiness comes from the satisfaction of desires, wants and goals, while well-being comes from possessing meaning in life, which the psychologists equate to living for a purpose higher than the self.

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of a new study write. The new study concludes that happiness might even be bad for you.

Happiness may not be as good for the body as [previous] researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Most significantly the study showed a correlation between self-reported happiness and the kind of gene expression that occurs in cases of adversity, loneliness, and stress.

When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.


“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you for as adversity,” says [one of the authors] Barbara Fredrickson.


Steven Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.

For a lucky few, happiness and meaning are both in their possession.

But for many, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants.

It’s an age old philosophical question and a part of any philosophical approach to therapy: can you be happy and hedonistic or is there something more?