Why Pursuing Pleasure Is The Emotional Equivalent Of Eating Empty Calories

Written by Paula Watkins, PhD

We’ve heard it before. The pursuit of happiness through material achievements is, well, a trap. And yet, we continue to pursue it, talk about it, read up on it and pray for it. Happiness has become something of a carrot — something we run toward, buy books about and pursue like the Holy Grail. Budding (and borrowing) Buddhists give voice to it each morning: “May all beings be happy.” It is, the Dalai Lama tells us, the purpose of life. It seems that even well-read folks who know the limitations of popular notions of "happiness" and how to achieve it often retain conventional notions and images of happiness in our heads. Whose images are these? Moreover, if they no longer serve us, what shall we replace them with?

The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia. “Eu” means good, or well-being, and “daimon” refers to the spirit. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the ultimate good, obtained by virtue and insight.

Virtue and insight huh?

Somewhere along the line something got lost in the translation of eudaimonia to happiness. At some point the meaning got tweaked, and there’s something to be gained from going to back to the original. I prefer defining eudaimonia as “human flourishing,” which may be a more accurate translation of the original Greek word.

Human flourishing, huh?

Again, I’m tempted to return to the original. Flourishing makes me think of plants, and while I like plants, it’s just not the type of word I’m likely to bring into my morning meditation practice. Instead (and with sincere apologies to all linguists), I’m taking up my own translation: “well in spirit” and in the original sense, by “virtue and insight.”

Our bodies get this. At the molecular level we know the difference between virtuous well-being (eudaimonic happiness) and the good old hedonic form of fleeting goodness and self-gratification. Earlier this year, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, scientists explained the biological influence of the two forms of happiness through the human genome.

While both eudaimonic and hedonic forms of well-being are associated with improved physical and mental health, the pattern of gene expression in people’s immune cells showed that eudaimonic well-being was associated with a significant decrease in stress-related gene expression (known as "conserved transcriptional responses to adversity," or CTRA). Conversely, hedonic well-being was associated with an increase in stress-related gene expression profiles.

The lead researcher, Professor Fredrickson, put it nicely. He describes the experience of more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being as the emotional equivalent of empty calories: "We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those 'empty calories' don't help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically," she said. "At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose."

Connectedness and purpose are what it’s all about, really. When we're virtuous, we have or demonstrate integrity to some greater purpose. When we have insight, we inevitably experience the interconnectedness of all things. We have a sense of ourselves as part of something bigger. That big thing could be the astounding pulsing rhythm of this biological planet, or something out there in the stratosphere. That part doesn't matter. What matters is the sense of well-being we humans derive from meaning, purpose, belief, and connection.

So, I’ve invited myself to play with words and create a new narrative that reflects my understanding (informed by science, philosophy and contemplative traditions) of the purpose of life and the ultimate of aspirations. Like Aristotle (and my cells) I’m pointing my compass toward eudaimonia, toward living with insight, virtue and purpose and to “flourish” alongside those I share this planet with.

And how do I conclude my morning meditation practice? “May all beings be well in spirit.”

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