Pursue meaning rather than pleasure

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoi­ded,” say social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Last week, we discussed two young people (“A sense of purpose,” July 2). Jim, diagnosed with clinical depression, started making meals for loved ones and found a sense of purpose during quarantine.


“I still don’t feel that happy,” he says. “But I am at peace. I no longer think about harming myself. I wake up planning the menu for the day.”

Lia, who used to think she was “a happy person,” obse­sses over missing a canceled trip and stays in her room, shopping and ordering food online.


“The highlight of my day is when the gadgets, steak, hotel meals arrive,” she says, “the anticipation of unwrapping packa­ges, even if they have to be disinfected first. Or else, I’ll just cry.”

There is nothing wrong with feeling good. Don’t worry, be happy, so they say.

In fact, people who strive to find meaning, those who give rather than take, often experience more worries than those who solely live for pleasure.

“Hakuna matata,” sing the young Simba and his friends in “The Lion King.” “It means no worries, for the rest of your days. It’s our problem-free philosophy.”

So why not just chase after happiness, amid a troublesome, dangerous world?

Because contrary to what many people think, going after happiness alone may not be good for our health. A sense of direction, contribution, community is better for our bodies (though it may not always make us feel happy).

What we choose appears to directly affect our genes.


In a study of 80 people in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and genetics researcher Steve Cole found that happiness alone (without meaning) impacts our genes in the same negative way as long-term pain, financial troubles and other forms of adversity.

“Cole’s past work has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern,” says Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic. Smith is the author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.”

“When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode,” Smith continues.

“This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of pro-inflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in antiviral responses.”

We spend time and effort maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But scarily, the impact of both pleasure and pain on our bodies appears to be the same.

“People who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives—proverbially, simply here for the party—have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity,” says Smith.

“The bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activa­ting the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.”

On the other hand, “people whose levels of happiness and meaning line up [both high], and people who have a strong sense of meaning but are not necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the adversity stress response. “

When happiness aligns with meaning, that is superb. Only when pleasure oversha­dows purpose do we become more prone to illness.

Hakuna matata can only go so far. With the help of his (formerly carefree) friends, Simba confronts his past, rises to the challenge, and in the end, finds his place in the circle of life.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at www.lazada.com.ph or call National’s Jennie Garcia at 0915-421-2276. Contact the author at [email protected]

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