Happiness and good health seem to go together. But according to a new study, not all forms of happiness are created equal. Researchers have long known that happier people experience less depression and stress, stronger immune systems, lower heart rates, and longer lives. But are all forms of happiness equally good for your health? If you feel elation because the Giants win the World Series, does that produce the same health benefits as the satisfaction that comes from helping a friend in need?
According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the answer is no. Instead, happiness that comes from doing good or fulfilling your life purpose may be better for you than happiness that comes from self-gratification or pleasure seeking. When it comes to your health, it seems, not all forms of happiness are created equal. Apparently our bodies are designed to differentiate between more virtuous—and less-self-serving—happiness, even if we don’t necessarily recognize the differences ourselves.
This could explain the connection found in prior studies between helping others and good health. Research has shown that acting in generous ways lights up areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, and can lead to positive health outcomes like lower stress and better cardiovascular health. In addition, several studies have found that volunteering increases longevity in older adults, especially if that volunteerism is motivated by altruism and not personal gain.
“Finding happiness in a sense of purpose or meaning does not need to be grand or grandiose,” says Fredrickson, one of the authors of the study. “Simply making an effort to connect with others with empathy and compassion could make this shift in your day.”