What it means to live well is an age-old philosophical question. Recent research shows that it’s also a relevant question for our health.
Chronic stress has been shown in many studies to impact health, and its impacts may permeate to the level of gene expression. In 2013, a group of researchers released a study that found individuals of low socioeconomic status, implying chronic stress, to exhibit increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Inflammation is associated with several health conditions, including chronic pain and heart disease. See the study at www.pnas.org.
If stress is associated with poor health, then a life with minimal stress is better for our health. But what does that life look like? There are different answers to the question of what constitutes the good life. Two common answers are happiness and well-being.
Happiness, at least in this post, will be defined as a life abundant in a type of pleasure called “hedonic.” Hedonic pleasures are self-gratifying and often short-lived. The life of hedonic pleasure is “fun.” Watching TV shows you enjoy and eating foods you like are examples of hedonic pleasures. Coupled with a lack of significant stressors, an abundance of hedonic pleasures generally contributes to a “happy” life.
Whereas happiness is characterized by hedonic pleasures, there’s another kind of “good life” that can be said to consist of “eudaimonic” pleasures. “Eudaimonia” is a Greek term that was used by Aristotle; translations vary, but a couple common ones are “flourishing” and “well-being.” Eudaimonia is involved in a sense of fulfillment. For Aristotle, human beings are eudaimonic when they best fulfill their natures.
What exactly our nature consists of is a whole other can of philosophical worms. For our purposes, we can consider eudaimonic well-being to be characterized by the pleasure that comes with a sense of fulfillment from activities that touch us deeper than the simpler, shorter-lived hedonic pleasures. Examples include activities that connect us with our communities and create lasting bonds, such as service work.
One of the researchers involved in the above study into chronic stress and gene expression went on to lead a team of researchers on another study into the effects of different types of pleasure on gene expression. Interestingly, they found that those who live lives filled with primarily hedonic pleasures showed increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes, as well as decreased expression of genes that mark proper immune system function. Those with lives rich in eudaimonic pleasures, on the other hand, showed the opposite pattern of gene expression. See more on this at www.pnas.org.
This research raises philosophical questions, particularly in the field of ethics. For example, does it suggest that morality is rooted in biology? Is it ethical to do good for others for your own well-being? The health implications, though, are clearer. Having fun and being happy are not likely sufficient for healthy living. Fulfilling the human capacity for meaning and connectivity is necessary for a body well-lived.