Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Happiness Versus Well-Being

On Tuesday, March 15, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, "Is Happiness Overrated?" With positive psychology as one of today's popular buzzwords in research and media circles, who would question whether pursuing happiness might, as the WSJ article suggests, be doing us more harm than good?

It turns out that "happiness as people usually think of it--the experience of pleasure and positive feelings," is not nearly as important to physical health as meaning and purpose. Engaging in meaningful, purposeful activity creates a deeper and more impactful positive state, which is called "eudaimonic well-being," than lighter, fun, which is called "hedonic well-being." The effects of eudaimonic well-being contribute not only to better mental health and cognitive acuity but also to a longer life than focusing on achieving feelings of happiness alone.

Dr. Carol Ryff and her team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that eudaimonic well-being reduced the impact of known risk factors like low education level on some critical health indicators. "Participants with low education level and greater eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker of disease associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease" than those with lower levels of eudaimonic well-being, even when taking hedonic well-being into account.

Too, researchers say that focusing too much on happiness, "can actually lead to feeling less happy." All too easily, we become addicted to the "quick fix," and swim on the surface of life, leaving the deeper layers of our beings untended.

While small, fleeting pleasures, like listening to good music, enjoying a good dinner or getting a new outfit, give us a burts of good feeling, in the long term, these activities, which contribute to "hedonic well-being," do not have real staying power. The article notes that raising children, volunteering or going to graduate school "may be less pleasureable day to day," but gives us more of a sense of fulfillment, "of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run."

Another important principal is everything in moderation. It is not human to be happy all the time, nor is it necessarily desireable. Life brings challenges, loss and hard times. To be able to feel through these different experiences is critical to being human. Being too unhappy too often is not good for us. And being more at peace more often is indeed more enjoyable. Yet, in a culture that has become far too narcissistic, "fixating on being happy in itself can become a psychological burden," reflects Dr. Ryff.

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