The brevity of life comes in many forms, be it sudden or gradual. Some depart Earth, and life for them ends either by an accident or an unforeseen circumstance and some others by a disease or foreseen event. Which ever way it is, we hope that everyone experiences the constant acme of happiness in their lives while this brevity spans.
Having lost both my parents to very deadly diseases at a young age, I understand this brevity to great lengths. Somehow, I have set out ever since their eternal departure to learn from a circumspect view as to why their short-lived lives were filled with excruciating pain and sorrow, even so coming from generations void of those diseases. They had set the new record for ovarian cancer and polycystic kidney failure in our family history. It had then become my latent obsession to understand the nature of extrinsic or nonhereditary diseases. A summary to my discovery and an addition to my knowledge is why I share with you this flourishing secret.
In my observation, I realised the one biggest ingredient that was missing in our family life was the consistent production of happiness— raw, addictive and sustainable happiness. The kind that was good enough to pass on forward and allow for a healthy environment— mind, body and soul. But as my understanding deepened, I began to perceive that happiness comes in various sorts, just like a sweet box of assorted chocolates. And these different types of happiness contribute differently to your physical well-being. How enlightening it was to discern that this intangible notion called happiness had a directly influential role on human beings´ tangible feature known as health. And the degree to which you invest into this way of life will only bring immense quality to your wellness.
Delving into happiness we find the two most basic classifications of it, hedonic and eudaimonic. The former kind of happiness is more self-centred and based on the need to feel comfort, satisfaction, enjoyment and the root meaning on which hedonic was founded on— pleasure. When these positive sentiments are felt, hedonic happiness is on a natural high. Like everything else that is unsustainable, the expiry date of such a happiness is rather short-termed. The encouragement towards hedonic happiness is basically the feeling of pleasure. Have you not been surrounded by such people? … who are extremely happy when doing things that please themselves and when they aren’t doing those things that are self-gratifying they are immediately cumbered by the cares of this world or they have a rather morose face on? To be honest, I see it frequently. I am sure you too.
This is going to be in-depth but promisingly fun. While the latter form of happiness is based on the very rudiment of Abraham Maslow´s top part of the hierarchy of needs— self-actualisation, the rest of the elements of eudaimonic happiness revolve around the same idea — self-acceptance, personal growth, positive social relationships and above all a deep purpose in life. Eudaimonia, from the literal Greek translation meaning state or condition of good spirit which can be generally interpreted as ´happiness´ or welfare, is the most integral proposition of Aristotelian ethics following Hellenistic philosophy. It was a term associated with the highest of human good. This classification of happiness go hand-in-hand with arete (virtue or excellence) and phronesis (practical or ethical wisdom). It makes strong claims that living with one's daimon (spirit—translated from Greek etymology) by means of character and virtue, can lead to a good life. And contrary to hedonic happiness, eudaimonic happiness has a greater sustainable significance because its encouragements are directed towards the belief of living in excellence and virtue, taking responsibility of one's self and focusing on what we can control for the betterment of the inner being. It also emphasis on living with the enjoyment that comes from serving with a purpose, bringing us back to Aristotle´s notion of highest human good.
Why settle for happiness that is fleeting when you can achieve a long-lasting happiness that is of highest human good?
The very thought of this hypothesis excited me thus, to take things a notch further I wanted to smoke out on the idea of how would eudaimonic happiness affect an individual's gene expressions which spells the word longevity— the antonym of brevity, a word one too common to me after all.
In my expedition to discover, I stumbled upon the works of molecular biologist Steve Cole, a professor at the Cousins Centre for Psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Cole has been dedicated to publishing numerous studies on the interaction between negative mental states and the functioning of the immune system. Which then covers a wide range of chronic illnesses relative to heart disease, diabetes, HIV and cancer. Recently he has swapped the negative mental states for a more thought-provoking idea— the H word, happiness, all for the cause of finding a healthier way of living. Although this makes his study more riskier since it has been deemed as sort of a moralising and wishful thinking. Anyhow, what we do know with clinical relevance is how stress/ negative mental states do have a direct correlation with health. Citing studies that were done during the 1980s and early 1990s sheds light that our brains are expressly wired to our immune systems. Portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow, and immune cells have receptors for neurotransmitters, suggesting that there is crosstalk.
All we need to do is perceive what cortisol does to our wellness and from there, henceforth work in obstruction to the presence of this primary stress hormone. We know that when cortisol is aggrandised in our bloodstream, we have an increased level of sugar (hyperglycemia) which can lead to diabetes, hypertension, skin changes, muscle weakness, mood swings, rapid weight gain, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, arthritis and a suppression in the immune system.When our immune systems are suppressed we are an open target to most chronic illnesses. Always remember that cortisol is nature’s built-in alarm system that gives you an alert signal so that you correspond with more healthier living choices. Just like fire it can be an enemy and a foe, but it lives within us and we have a choice to feed it or starve it. Somehow I feel so close to this quote by Sun-Tzu whenever I think of stress as the enemy within me and how I must tackle it to win my healthy self —“If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss”. And in knowing my enemy, I found what had what brought that brevity to my parents´ lives. Stress. They fed their bodies with consistent stress, subconsciously and consciously. Immensely, to an extent it had altered their genes´ expressions, the process of giving instructions in our DNA on how our cells should function.
When we realise the strength that lies in the fact that our well-being and goodness can be altered directly from our life choices to a cellular level, we will begin to love ourselves in ways that are more sustainable and purposeful, leading to our body’s longevity.
And in these moments, Helen Keller comes to my mind with a quote she aforementioned with much depth—“true happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose”.
Remigrating back to Dr. Cole and his study now on the effects of happiness on gene expressions, we know for certain that happiness is wide and intangible, therefore, he used loneliness as the variable in a study that he conducted with six chronically lonely people, and eight others who had a great social support system while observing genomic activity using their white blood cells.
Out of the roughly 22,000 genes in the human genome, the researchers identified 209 that distinguished the lonely people from the sociable ones: they were either regulated up to produce more of an individual protein or regulated down to produce less. Any individual gene could easily look different by chance, but Cole was struck by the overall pattern. A particularly large proportion of the upregulated genes in the lonely group turned out to be involved in the inflammatory response, whereas many of the downregulated genes had antiviral roles. In sociable people, the reverse was true. It was a small study, but one of the first to link a psychological risk factor with a broad underlying change in gene expression.
To make things simple, people who were lonely had been more to inflammation and lesser antiviral properties, and those that were more sociable had lesser inflammation and higher antiviral response.
This study was related to finding inflammatory response to happiness, a state of good spirit. To take the study further and to concretise the evidence, Cole made another investigation trying to understand something as simple as what happens to someone´s body when they are happy. They asked 80 participants a set of 14 questions designed by psychologists, all geared towards both of the classifications of happiness we had seen earlier. Part of the questions were to enlighten the response to hedonic happiness and the others towards eudaimonic happiness. Hedonic happiness revolved more on material and bodily pleasures such as eating well and sex. While eudaimonic focused more on a sense of meaning, activities that were purposeful, intellectual pursuits and social relationships. The results were as clear as daylight.
These two types of happiness had a different role on gene expressions. The group of people that were purpose-based had more favourable gene-expressions profile while those who had a more hedonic outlook were associated with profiles similar to individuals facing challenges and difficulties. How contrary isn’t it? We would think that gratifying ourselves in such ways would only enhance our well-being, instead it only makes us as equal to someone who faces distress. According to Cole, if people lived their lives based on shallow and self-pleasurable gains, they would not be ready when adversities strike, thus instigating them to directly be affected by the causes of stress. When on the other facade, if we placed our happiness on things that were more worthwhile— developing ourselves, the community and a purpose, stress will be easier to handle. We also understand well enough that stress for many reasons cannot be avoided, but as much we can we have to learn to navigate through it and transform it into happiness. Just like the law of energy, it cannot be destroyed but it can only be transferred or transformed.
Surprisingly I furthered my discovery only to find that Eudaimonic happiness has the same effect as meditation has on the telomeres of the DNA because it has the ability to produce happy immune cells through positivity cultivation. And eventually having the ability to alter genetic expressions. Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, a well-known researcher from the University of California, San Francisco and psychiatrist Elissa Epel, a fellow colleague embarked on a series of research discovering that meditation could affect the telomeres.This is what protects the ends of a chromosome from becoming frayed or tangled.“Telomeres are affected by many things, but they are directly affected by stress. So we can see how improvements in our mental health, through the practice of meditation, might be linked to improvements in our telomeres” explains Epel.
In this fashion, if we practiced meditation as one of the ways to achieve eudaimonic happiness from the many others that exist, the cells that live within us can now survive longer than it was expected. Through our conscious efforts to find the good spirit in our endeavours we will be able to nurture our happy cells. Hence creating an atmosphere cultured for longevity. A topic I will further explore in my near future to be shared with you.
If an individual concentrated more on acquiring eudaimonic happiness in their daily pursuits, perhaps the quality of one´s life can be highly elevated. Finding their happiness not through the momentary benefits that hedonic happiness offers, rather engrossing themselves into more lifelong and life-changing benefits that eudaimonic happiness brings. The kind that is found in a purpose-driven life, an inward development for an outward expansion. When we are strong enough to give back to those around us we have no time to give stress the spotlight. Choose to be that stroke of luck for someone out there and see how this adds to your happiness. While we all look into that efforts of adding to our eudaimonic happiness let us raise a toast to longevity! A secret I wish I could have shared with my late parents who felt the bitter taste of brevity instead of longevity through the absence of purposeful happiness.
Till then I wish you stress free moments and loads of eudaimonic happiness! I leave with this quote I like from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe-“Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though it were his own”.