Purpose, Happiness, and Genes


I do wonder if the obvious hostility toward Christianity limits the conclusions of pieces such as Will Storr’s New Yorker essay on the benefits of a purposeful happiness (“eudaemonia”) for health, at the level of one’s genes, but the insights are good regardless:

When they parsed the data, they saw that Fredrickson’s prediction appeared to be wrong. “This whole hedonic well-being stuff—just how happy are you, how satisfied with life?—didn’t really correlate with gene expression at all,” Cole said. Then he checked the correlation with eudaemonic happiness. “When we looked at that, things actually looked quite impressive,” he said. The results, while small, were clearly significant. “I was rather startled.” The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up. Since that first test, in 2013, there have been three successful replications of the study, including one of a hundred and eight people, and another of a hundred and twenty-two. According to Cole, the kind of effect sizes that are being found indicate that lacking eudaemonia can be as damaging as smoking or obesity. They also suggest that, although people high in eudaemonic happiness often experience plenty of the hedonic stuff, too, the associated health benefits tend to surface only in those who lead what Aristotle might have called a good life.

“Hedonic,” by the way, isn’t exactly the same thing as hedonism, which implies an excess.

It should surprise nobody who hasn’t written off a spiritual reality that our bodies seem to respond well when we do the things we find ourselves called to do, including building toward larger goals, which implies purpose.  Take that a step farther: Storr and his stable of researchers seem surprised that striving for goals and maintaining multiple ongoing projects have benefits even when they aren’t associated with either socializing or a sense of humanity’s greater good — the former being one good that materialists can imagine us to be evolved to desire and the latter being their sense of the highest purpose.  People who believe in an individual relationship with God, however, can see that living up to one’s own potential and finding one’s own unique purpose can be sufficient of itself.

It would be interesting, next, to test whether there are characteristics of goals that do people particularly well.  There may be no lesson in the exercise, inasmuch as the biology that encourages rightly ordered goals could respond to goals that have been corrupted, but it would be interesting to discover whether correlation is stronger when particular worldviews inform the goals, whether one believes a project serves God’s purpose, will save Mother Nature, or conquer the world with wealth.