“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is one of the most famous phrases in the United States Declaration of Independence. These three aspects are listed among the “unalienable rights” or sovereign rights of man.* But some new research suggests that happiness ain’t all that; Shirley S. Wang reports for the Wall Street Journal:
The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.
Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”
Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.
In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.
The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.
“Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness,” says Carol Ryff, a professor and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“Eudaimonia” is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as “happiness”—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is. Some experts say Aristotle meant “well-being” when he wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia by fulfilling their potential. Today, the goal of understanding happiness and well-being, beyond philosophical interest, is part of a broad inquiry into aging and why some people avoid early death and disease. Psychologists investigating eudaimonic versus hedonic types of happiness over the past five to 10 years have looked at each type’s unique effects on physical and psychological health…
[continues in the Wall Street Journal]