A new study suggests that a meaningful life is healthier than a simply happy one:
[Researchers Steve] Cole and [Barbara] 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.
This is too bad given the more beneficial gene expression pattern associated with meaningfulness. People whose levels of happiness and meaning line up, and people who have a strong sense of meaning but are not necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the adversity stress response. Their bodies were not preparing them for the bacterial infections that we get when we are alone or in trouble, but for the viral infections we get when surrounded by a lot of other people.