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Having a Purpose in Life is Healthier than Happiness

Update Date: Aug 02, 2013 01:03 PM EDT

People are often told that the happier you are, the healthier you will be. Although that is the case to a certain extent since happier people have less stress and ordeals, a new study is reporting that the key to a healthier life is by having meaning. According to researchers, it is important to separate the concept of happiness and meaning. After analyzing how people viewed both concepts, the researchers concluded that it is not happiness that yields health benefits, but rather, having a purpose in life that does.

After evaluating a large group of participants for over a month, the researchers concluded that when happiness was associated with selfish behaviors, it did not lead to a healthier body. Taking things from others, regardless of whether or not the other person was a friend or a stranger, can lead to a happy mental state. However, this state is one that does not promote health. The researchers noted that happiness when it was associated with the desire to be selfless by giving back was completely different. People who gave back were happy because they added meaning to their lives, which resulted in an overall healthier state.

"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," the authors of the study wrote according to The Atlantic. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need." 

For this particular study, the researchers, Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Steve Cole from UCLA (University California Los Angeles) recruited 80 participants. These participants provided self-repots of their levels of happiness and meaning in life. Happiness was measured by questions, such as 'How often did you feel interested in life?' and 'How often did you feel happy?' Meaning was measured by questions, such as 'How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group' and 'How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?'

After collecting the data, the researchers then focused on gene expression. They used fMRI scans to identify the areas of the brain that responded to multiple stimuli. The researchers found that people who were happy but had no meaning in life had gene expressions that resembled people who were suffering from chronic life problems. The gene expression pattern from the people who had meaning was significantly more beneficial. This study suggests that it takes a lot to be happy and healthy.

"Empty positive emotions are about as good for you as adversity," Fredrickson said.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

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