It’s Healthier to Live a Life Full of Meaning than a Life Full of Pleasure
Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: June 2014
The other research I want to tell you about is not about HSPs directly, but I think you will find it very pertinent. Often I hear HSPs question why, compared to non-HSPs, they seem to worry so much about the meaning of life, the problems in the world, and their role in alleviating these. HSPs often feel they just have to help others. Or they sacrifice in various ways in their lives more than non-HSPs seem to. HSPs can be driven to be creative whatever the cost. Why, they ask, do they seem to be denied the happily oblivious life some others seem to enjoy?
Parents of highly sensitive children have asked me the same thing. “He seems to be so upset by the suffering of others, by bullying and greed in other children, and so aware of all the consequences of the mistakes we humans are making. I know he’s trying to make sense of it all, but how can he grow up to be a happy person?”
I have sometimes responded, hopefully with proper sympathy, with the thoughts of Aristotle, who espoused in his Nicomachean Ethics that the greatest pleasure comes from “eudaimonia,” or the pleasure of doing what you are meant to do, as opposed to the other main philosophy at the time that one should pursue “hedonia,” the pleasure that comes from pure pleasure, such as good food, sexual gratification, or just relaxing in a nice place. Not that those are bad at all, but according to Aristotle, adding eudaimonia is what makes the good life.
Eudaimonia is what we feel when we are doing what we were meant to do, when we are self-actualizing, following our calling or our “bliss,” or becoming our true self. Bakers love to bake, and feel eudaimonia when they can offer others the perfect cake, but they might hate to dance. Dancers feel eudaimonia when they dance, but may not want to waste their practice time by baking.
HSPs and Eudaimonia
I have found that HSPs cannot tolerate just having a job to make money. It must have meaning. Aristotle may be right that everyone is born to follow a certain calling or vocation because of their special, unique abilities. But figuring out that calling and pursuing it appears to be far more important to HSPs.
Further, the one ability all humans have and feel good using is their greater consciousness, their greater awareness of what is going on. Animals may have some special abilities and some degree of consciousness. I do not want to slight them. But it does seem that humans have the edge here.
All this awareness does not come without a cost. Humans are aware of death, loss, danger distant in time or space, human evil, and all the rest, and HSPs are more aware than others. (See above!) Being aware of certain realities is painful, but being aware in general, well, most of us would not trade it for being less responsive to our world.
I have sometimes quoted Aristotle, who was supposedly quoting Socrates, who may or may not have asked one of his students, “Would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy human?” We do know that John Stuart Mill said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
Who knew J.S. Mill had such a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor?
Evidence that Eudaimonia is Good for You
The study I want to tell you about was done by five researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and another two from the University of California at Los Angeles, and was published in August 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). They knew that certain areas along the strands of human genetic material can act to increase or decrease the activity of the immune system and inflammatory response, depending on one’s behavior and feelings. Decreased immunity and increased inflammation are not healthy.
These researchers asked normal, healthy people about how happy they were generally, and how much that week they were feeling “happy?” “Satisfied?” These questions were about hedonia. And also how much that week their life had a “sense of direction or meaning?” How much they had had “experiences that challenged them to grow or become a better person?” How much they felt they “had something to contribute to society?” All these questions were aimed to capture eudaimonia. They also tested their participants for these immune system and inflammatory responses that they thought might vary with the kinds of happiness people experienced.
The study found that eudaimonia was associated with the healthy response by this genetic material, while hedonia actually was linked to the unhealthy response for some reason. Of course most people had lots of both kinds of happiness. Also as far as their conscious emotional reports of happiness, there was no difference – apparently the conscious mind does not notice the difference or the effect on health. But the body seems to know the difference between these two sources of happiness. I have always had the private, unscientific hunch that every cell in our body knows every thought we have, and that people live longer when their body is receiving the message that there’s a reason to be living. Maybe this study suggests I have been partly right.
Why these apparent differences in the effects of the two kinds of happiness? It may be that the evolutionary process of selecting the DNA that will survive to be passed on to the next generation has supported living a meaningful life, which usually means making a significant contribution to one’s culture, whether through one’s close relationships, one’s intellectual or artistic or spiritual life, or whatever. Of course, one of the most built-in, instinctive ways to live a meaningful life is to have children. And child rearing is certainly not always pure joy! One look at parents sharing an airplane seat with their tantruming toddler, the kind that screams from coast to coast, and you wonder why the single people on the plane would ever choose to have children. Yet most of them will.
The point, obviously, for HSPs, is that we seem far more prone to fill our lives with eudaimonia. Interestingly in the study, only 22% had that kind of meaning-based happiness predominating in their lives. Does that percentage sound familiar? Need I say more? “Live long and prosper.” That is, live a meaningful life.