#42

Before we took a week off to focus on love and relationships and the illogic of giving  6000 calories worth of chocolate to someone you really want to remain healthy and fit, we talked about all the positive ways that happiness and contentment impact physical health, and the data is pretty clear: health and happiness tend to go together, and finding happiness is a good step on the road to finding good health. Other good steps include exercising and not eating 6000 calories worth of chocolate.

One of the stranger things we are learning about our human bodies is that some of the things we thought were set at birth really aren’t. For most of my life we were warned that human beings arrive with one set of brain cells (most have a complete set) and these gradually die off, and that’s all you get. This claim was often accompanied by a warning that alcohol kills brain cells, so I was always very careful not to pour rubbing alcohol into my ears, as I didn’t want to kill my brain. In 2015 scientists demonstrated that we can actually grew new brain cells throughout our lives, and that we can help this happen by running and fasting (not at the same time) and consuming ‘flavonoids’ which are found among other places, (not making this up) in dark chocolate. But 6000 calories worth is still too much.  They also suspect that alcohol doesn’t really kill brain cells, but you should still keep it away from your ears, because why take that chance?

One of the stranger findings in medical research today is that your genes (the code that determines whether you are tall or blue-eyed or follicly challenged or whether your ears hang low and wobble to-and-fro) can change how they function in response to life events. Meditation, for example, has been shown to reduce the activity of genes that cause inflammation in the body, and scientists believe that a number of other practices can increase the functioning of helpful genes and decrease the activity of less helpful ones. All of this brings us to today’s basic idea: some kinds of happiness are better for you than others, and some kinds of happiness may have the same impact on you as stress or depression. Which is kinda unhappy to think about.

Scientists split happiness into two broad categories. When you drive to the store, buy the huge box of chocolate, and eat most of it on the way home, you will experience hedonic well-being, which comes from seeking out a pleasurable experience. You will probably also experience despair and regret about an hour later, which is surprisingly common after these types of experiences.

At the cellular level, smelling the flowers or seeing a good movie can also have a less positive effect.  Barbara Frederickson, who has spent two decades working on questions like these, says that spending all your time chasing the next ‘fun’ thing can actually be physically harmful; people who find well-being primarily by seeking out fun experiences show higher levels of inflammation and lower resistance to illness. Ironically, these are the same harmful outcomes observed in people who have experienced extreme stress or depression.

In contrast, eudaemonic well-being is found by focusing on things larger than yourself, and pursuing a purpose that is bigger than the next big thrill. Frederickson found that the immune systems of people who experience this type of happiness are more active, and their levels of inflammation are lower. If your happiness in life comes from something bigger than the next win or text message or Netflix binge, your body actually functions better to protect you from poor health outcomes like dementia down the road, and depression and illness in the short run.

So how do you find more of that second kind of happiness, the one that is so hard to spell and pronounce? Basically, stop being a selfish pig (here’s an entire book on this: selfish pig). Happiness rises as your focus on self-gratification falls. Ironically, when we find ourselves feeling unhappy, most of us turn inward, looking for something to buy or do or experience to fix it, which can actually make it worse. Build times into your life when you invest in others, and when you sacrifice your valuable time and energy for a larger cause. Practice(!) looking to others and helping them, which is probably going to take a while to learn since you’ve done it the other way for most of your life. While you may have to convince yourself to invest in others, this will do more for you than any movie you go see or post you like.

One more thing: people who are deeply hedonic, constantly pursuing the next happy moment, are in reality living like junkies, always needing  another hit, enjoying it briefly, then quickly back on the hunt for more. That treadmill, unlike the other kind, is an inherently unhappy and unhealthy place to be.

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Read the details about gene expression here.

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