Sign up FAST! Login

Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness, by Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic

Stashed in: Interconnectedness!, #health, #happiness, Words!, @ifindkarma, Awesome, Meaning of Life, Euphoria!, The Internet is my religion., Happiness, Health Studies, The Meaning of Life, @emesfahanismith, TIL, Cognitive Bias, Five People

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Thank you for sharing this great article Emily has written, which I will call out again as worth reading:

Geege, which parts did you like?


Cole’s past work has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern. 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.

“You have a forward-looking immune system,” Fredrickson told me, “If you have a long track record of adversity, it prepares you for bacterial infections. For our ancestors, loneliness and adversity were associated with bacterial infections from wounds with predators and fights with conspecifics.” On the other hand, if you are doing well and having a lot of healthy social connections, your immune system shifts forward to prepare you for viruses, which you’re more likely to contract if you're interacting with a lot of people.

What does this have to do with happiness?

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. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

“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 Fredrickson.

It’s important to understand that for many people, a sense of meaning and happiness in life overlap; many people score jointly high (or jointly low) on the happiness and meaning measures in the study. But for many others, 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. Only one quarter of the study participants had what the researchers call “eudaimonic predominance” — that is, their sense of meaning outpaced their feelings of happiness.

Wow. If you don't have a "Today I Learned" stash, you really should have one, Geege.

So, happiness without meaning is the health equivalent of empty calories.

"Eudaimonic predominance" is a freaking awesome phrase I'm going to need to commit to memory.

People who consider themselves happy but lack meaning in their lives have the same gene expression pattern as people who are enduring chronic distress. This expression pattern is linked to major illnesses like heart disease.

Emily's summary at the end really sticks with me:

Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think?

From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive.

In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.

There is more to life than being happy:

Thoughtless pursuit of happiness can make a person miserable, sadly.

That's not an obvious finding, but it is an important one.

I have to fully disagree with the narrative framing of "Meaning is Healthier than Happiness", but not with the physiological findings--which I can support.  The Atlantic article misleads on emphasizing this assertion.

One primary objection is that happiness and meaning (internal emotional states) are lockstep with observable behaviors... conversationally framing any emotion as proxy for a behavior, or vice versa, is a false conceit.  Consider the implications of such framing:


I'm Happy when I'm exhibiting "taking behaviors"

I'm Meaningful when I'm exhibiting "giving behaviors"


Really?  Ooops, there goes about $20 billion annually given philanthropically by small scale donors.  A dollar here a dollar there: is one such little act meaningful to me, no; does the little act make me happy when I do it, yes.

The false conclusion drawn is that specific behaviors correlate to specific emotions and that these emotions correlate to physiological states induced by isolation or social adaptation.  I simply don't see the evidence for making those assumptions true here.  I also don't even see any evidence that any behaviors are either driven by or produce a residue of the internal emotional states of happiness or meaning.

Let's leave behind whether or not bacterial or viral prevention dispositions are healthier for the moment and admit we remain wholly unclear if emotions are the catalyst or residue of the behaviors under examination--whether or not they produce the physiological disposition for bacterial or viral defense.  If so, we have to call bullshit on "Meaning is Healthier than Happiness" assertion at this point until we measure it and prove it true.  But this assumption goes against long established facts. 

The evidence that Dr. Manfred Clynes proved decades ago was that the our biologic, chemical behavior of emotion expression is a fully independent physiological event.  This means the measurable fidelity of any emotion expressed is NOT endemic to any specific behavior, environment or population.  However, any emotion expressed can be recognized with a high degree of accuracy across all populations in many diverse environments and across many behavioral modes of communication (auditory, visual, physical, etc.).  This is not the same thing.  Clynes also proved that emotions as physiologically independent events are also single channel chemical expressions, meaning we can only express one emotion at a time, i.e. if your right hand is expressing happiness your left hand can't express meaning, joy, sadness, anger, etc. at the same time.

So it would make much more sense if this study were to have used these previously proven scientific facts about emotions and their chemical expression and brought some basic rigor and integrity to the data before making rhetorical assumptions that behaviors across epigenetic environments do or don't turn on gene expression and immunological suppression.  We can blithely label any behavior as a result of any emotion, or vice versa, but scientific integrity doesn't come along for the ride, especially if it's simply not true.  

Let's instead extend the value of what this study did find, that key behaviors can be observed and measured to correlate with underlying physiological states, so being that:


Hedonistic behavior implies bacterial immunological response

Eudaimonic behavior implies viral immunological response


And then we can ask better, more interesting questions not answered, such as:


If we chose to exhibit either hedonistic or eudaimonic behaviors without the emotional states of happiness or meaning, is the behavior itself sufficient to induce a physiological state of bacterial adversity or viral consanguinity?


If so, I could just eudaimonically yell and swear and give a damn dollar at every checkout counter and to every beggar on a corner and gain a healthier constitution...  "Here you go, and f*&! you!"


If we choose to sustain a state of emotional meaning or happiness without either hedonistic or eudaimonic behaviors, will such emotional states produce or induce in us physiological states of bacterial adversity or viral consanguinity?


If so, I could just hedonistically meditate and sustain a durable happy or meaningful state to achieve a more healthier constitution... "Friends, what friends?"


My crankiness here is because I'm very healthy and have consumed so much evidence about better explanations on how scientific studies suffer many false conclusions by translation and framing problems that I feel a eudaimonic compulsion to give back here.  But I don't feel any greater meaning in my life for having done it.  Though I am happy about it.  A dollar here a dollar there...

Check out Kahneman and Tversky's earlier works and Dr. Clynes work if you're interested in liberating your physiology to achieve a balance between bacterial and viral immunity.

One question:

Hedonistic behavior implies bacterial immunological response

Eudaimonic behavior implies viral immunological response

What's the difference between bacteria and viruses in this context?

Adam, the study does seem to offer evidence of correlation between physiological bacteria/virus fighting immunological states and a presumed continuum of social and anti-social behaviors--though which behaviors are unclear.  


My objection is not about the immunological response, but the outright conflation and overlay of those responses as correlations to the posited emotional states (happiness and meaning).  


We cannot say that any emotional states (regardless happiness or meaning) are ever proxy signifiers for any underlying social behaviors (or are either causative agents for, or residue of, any immunological states of bacteria/virus fighting) not only because there no evidence for those conclusions in this study provided (and how it was misrepresented by journalists), but also because there has already been amassed ample, prior scientific proof that emotions simply do not work this way in the body.


And anyone could glimpse limited facts and make stunningly mistaken inferences with any data, so I'm not suggesting malfeasance, just more like professional negligence.  And that's assuming there is still some shred of professional diligence as the norm to be deviated from these days...


[Hey, is there a way to insert spaces between paragraphs and points of emphasis on postings without resorting to a . like I've been doing here and in above?  I need all the help and pointers I can get.  Thanks!]

Right now, the period is the only way. Looks good actually.

I think I understand what you're saying. People are pursuing the emotional consequences rather than the behaviors that lead to those consequences.

There is no way to happiness because happiness IS the way.

You May Also Like: