There’s an old Sufi saying: “Even if it makes you happy, at the mint, fool’s gold will be identified.”
That came to mind this afternoon, as I was reading an article describing the recent study by the University of North Carolina and UCLA. The title is “Not All Happiness is Created Equal.”
According to the study, the body distinguishes between different kinds of happiness. Happiness associated with noble purposes can bestow health benefits on us, whereas happiness associated with self-gratification can have negative health consequences.
My first thought was that it sounds to me this study reflects someone’s biases, and their notions of good and bad. That said, I had always suspected that about happiness, or maybe I had hoped it was the case. I always thought — and I suppose this is my bias — simple happiness derived from comfort and pleasure is somehow not as good or as meaningful as the happiness that comes from knowledge, wisdom, service and conscious participation.
As uptight as that might sound, the research would seem to support it.
What these doctors of psychology, psychiatry, medicine and behavioral sciences found is that, in people whose happiness comes from a sense of purpose and meaningfulness, the genes involved in fighting off disease are present and are expressed with much greater frequency than they are in people whose happiness comes from pleasure and comfort.
By the same token, the people whose happiness comes from pleasure and comfort have the gene for illness in much greater frequency, and by illness they are specifically talking about inflammation and stress, both of which lead to a whole slew of other maladies. That is, the noble happy people have the gene that fights off disease, and the selfish happy people have the gene that promotes disease.
By talking about genetic
expression, they’re talking about long-term effects. In the short term, both types of happy people report overall feelings of well-being. So, happiness of any kind would seem to be a good thing.
Researchers liken these prime motivations, and these reasons for happiness to different types of food — fruits and vegetables, compared to candy and potato chips. All of them will fill you up, if you eat enough, but some of them are nutritious and contribute to good health, whereas some are not nutritious. They are what the researchers would call “empty calories.”
What was not clear from reading the article was how they determined if someone is a noble happy person or a selfish happy person. I would guess it was based on their responses to a questionnaire, but I don’t know what the questions were. What also was not clear is if the long-term health benefits are dependent on the combination of happiness and meaningfulness. I’d be interested in comparing unhappy people who feel a great sense of purpose, with happy people who don’t. In that case, which of them, at the cellular level, is better off?
The conclusion of these researchers is that happiness is an incredibly powerful emotion that has a positive impact on our sense of well-being. But, happiness that comes from simple pleasures doesn’t have long-term and deep-seated benefits, whereas happiness based on a sense of connectedness and purpose does.
In one sense, it sounds like the woman on the so-called news network who is forever editorializing, as opposed to just reporting the news, but on the other hand, it would seem to bear out the same pearls of wisdom given to us in the centuries-old sayings of the Sufi.
For me, that’s always an exciting thing, when ancient wisdom and modern science come together.
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org