So we are coming to a conception of happiness that differs fundamentally from the storybook version. The storybook conception tells of desires fulfilled; the truer version involves striving toward meaningful goals. Storybook happiness involves a bland idleness; the truer conception involves seeking and purposeful effort. Storybook happiness involves every form of pleasant thumb-twiddling; true happiness involves the full use of one’s powers and talents. John W. Gardner in Self-Renewal
From: Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty:
The highest of all human good is the realization of our own true potential.
Thus was born eudaimonic happiness. It is about striving, working hard, purposeful engagement, the kind of effort that may be stressful or even painful in the short run but over the long run brings meaning and a wildly profitable return on investment.
A life of meaning can be kind of a drag: It involves sacrifice, stress, sleepless nights to feed the baby, working long hours to put your child through college, sitting by your wife’s side through the last stages of cancer, visiting your father even though Alzheimer’s has stolen his capacity for a shared memory, a joke, and gentle word.
So what’s the point of meaning, of eudaimonia, anyway? As it turns out, both our minds and our bodies prefer it. Researchers at the University of Rochester tracked some 150 recent graduates, dividing them into those who were seeking intrinsic goals (valuing “deep, lasting relationships” or “helping others improve their lives”) or extrinsic goals, such as wealth, looks, fame. The researchers checked back two years later and found that the young people who achieved their extrinsic, image-related goals fared poorly: They reported more negative emotions like shame and anger, and more physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and loss of energy. The intrinsic set, which valued relationships and personal growth, reported more positive feelings toward themselves and others, and fewer physical signs of stress.
Let’s drill down a little further, into our biology. Our bodies prefer selfless happiness to self-centeredness, and will reward eudaimonia with a longer life. Scientists have discovered that people who pursue eudaimonic well-being also have lower particular biomarkers for inflammation that have been linked to a number of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. These purposeful people even had lower cholesterol.
Drill down deeper still, and we find that even our DNA rewards eudaimonic meaning and punishes hedonism…. Those who pursued pleasure more than meaning had the bad genomic fingerprint profile, the one with the dangerous immune response. But those whose dispositions tipped toward eudaimonic well-being had the opposite response to stress: they were protected at a cellular level.
It is better to be good than happy.