As a psychiatrist, one might assume that I have professional insights into the healthful pursuit of this illusory goal. The truth is that mental health in America (and by insidious extension, the world) is about suppressing inconvenient, inappropriate, and decontextualized symptoms of distress rather than promoting a state of contentment and emotional satisfaction.
For my patients, happiness looks a lot more like bringing the blurred edges of their physical health into sharp, focused relief, to live in a state of effortless ease. They seek to relate to their thoughts and emotions in a more balanced fashion without the burden of disrupted sleep, pain, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, brain fog, and low libido.
Relating to our thoughts and emotions with balance is best accomplished through mindfulness-based practice. In this way, we learn that, happiness is releasing attachment to preference (yes, rather than “knowing what you want”), and focusing on a feeling of gratitude.
It turns out that gratitude–a state of not wanting, a state of externalized pleasure–may send our genes important messages about how to relax and call off the inflammatory dogs. As little as 20 minutes of meditation can make powerful inflammatory gene expression changes. This exercise is a short cut to experiencing peace in the midst of chaos.
Challenges of Cultivating Happiness on a Daily Basis
As a mom, and someone who works with moms daily, I know that motherhood transforms our efforts toward self-fulfillment. Growing and caring for another human shifts the nexus of meaning in life such that seemingly important elements of our former incarnation may be rendered peripheral.
But what if being a mother doesn’t translate into happiness? What if it feels more like frustration and loneliness? What if you only become more aware of unrealized purpose that feels all the more unattainable now that child care has intervened?
Every day, I learn about the nuances of this experience through friends and patients. I understand that the pursuit of happiness can feel elusive. Will you really be happier with a bigger house? A walk-in closet? A great nanny? If you were having more sex with your husband? If you had a husband? What kind of feeling should we be looking for?
There is a growing body of literature linking psychosocial stress as well as states of more severe mental illness to low-grade, chronic inflammation.
Can Certain Positive Emotions be Protective?
A fascinating study called A functional genomic perspective on human well-being sought to help us navigate the meaning of human happiness according to our genes.
Since the sequencing of our genome over a decade ago, we now appreciate the superior role of the environment in manifesting health and disease. Traditionally, research on the effects of stress on disease has focused on stress hormones; however, this line of inquiry appears to be an insufficient, or at least indirect, explanation for the symptoms that can be triggered by chronic stress.
Given the nature of stress, toxic exposures, and processed food, this environment is most often triggering the “inflammasome,” a response system directed by messengers with names like NFK-B, that responds to environmental assault with inflammatory signals throughout the body and even the brain.
But what do our emotional states have to do with inflammation and eventual disease states?
In the above study of 80 healthy adults, the authors analyzed “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” (CTRA), which is characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation.
At many points in our most recent 250 million years of evolution, this epigenetic response was adaptive, helping us to navigate acute infectious threats, and ones that varied based on community exposures.
The authors looked at this expression in the context of two forms of well-being:
- hedonic, meaning the “sum of an individual’s positive affective experiences,” and
- eudaimonic, meaning the form that “results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.”
In other words, they were interested in whether different types of happiness soothed the body in different ways.
The authors conclude that “Eudaimonic well-being was associated with decreased expression of the previously defined CTRA transcriptome profile involving elevated expression of pro-inflammatory genes and reduced expression of genes involved in antibody synthesis and type I IFN antiviral responses. In contrast, hedonic well-being was associated with significant up-regulation of the CTRA gene expression profile.
Health Benefits of Purpose-Driven Happiness
What this means is, purpose-driven happiness seemed to send a message to genes saying that everything is peaceful, while pleasure-driven self-gratification seemed to keep the response system on high alert.
At the level of conscious emotion (i.e., are you reporting feeling depressed or happy), the authors note that both types of happiness usually co-occurred and registered as feeling “positive.”
However, in the 22% of individuals with a stronger eudaimonic profile, inflammatory response was notable down-regulated.
In this way, our genes may be more sensitive than our cognitive minds are to wellness-promoting emotions.
It could be argued that motherhood, by its very purpose-driven nature, activates positive gene expression even without our conscious knowledge of it
, sending our body the message that we are reaching outside of meeting our own needs for a sense of happiness.
Neglecting the inherent limitations of a study of this cross-sectional study design, it appears that purpose-driven happiness is a form that one would be best not to do without, and is more important (on a wellness level) than the house, car, bank account barometers that our commercialist society would have you believe are paramount.
But what is purpose-driven happiness? Is it learning new ideas that are socially relevant? Spiritual connectivity? Creative works? Philanthropy?
I would define it as this: The engagement in a pursuit that compels you. The satisfaction that comes from this experience allows you to tap into an energy that is bigger than that which sustains functional movement through your daily life.
If you find yourself feeling that sense of groundedness accompanied by a simultaneous upliftment (like a “room without a roof!”), you can rest assured that your inflammatory genes are being shushed back into their appropriate corner.
This post first appeared on Fearless Parent.