“If a word in the dictionary were mispelled, how would we know?”

Steven Wright

We all know that negative moods are associated with poor physical health and psychological well-being1.

What about positive emotions and health?

In a study of 2,873 healthy British adults conducted by Dr. Andrew Steptoe, those who reported more positive emotions during the day had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol that is typically associated with increased blood pressure, immune suppression and obesity2.

Among women, but not men in this study, positive emotions were also associated with  significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 which are considered indicators of widespread inflammation in the body and independent risk factors for cardiovascular disease. These gender differences weren’t really explained but the findings on the stress hormone cortisol have been well documented in both men and women.

These findings support the idea that happiness is protective although we all have genetic “set-points” accounting for approximately 50% variance in how happy we generally are on a day-to-day basis (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Heritability contributes to the finding that following increases (decreases) of well-being that people tend to return to their baseline levels over time (Suh, Diener, & Fujita, 1996).

The more difficult question though remains:

Are There Different Ways to Be Happy?

“Happiness” really is a messy concept.

In fact, not only do psychologist define and measure aspects of well-being differently, there is some new evidence that having the right kind of happiness might actually be more important for long-term health3.

Subjective Well-Being vs. Psychological Well-Being

It seems the term “happiness” is generally recognized by most people as an indicator of well-being and indeed it is.

However, psychologists and researchers prefer to split the concept of well-being into two major types:

  1. Subjective (hedonic) well-being
  2. Psychological (eudaimonic) well-being

Subjective well-being generally refers to either the ratio of positive to negative emotions (commonly what is described as “happiness”) and life satisfaction (a longer-term sense of overall engagement and fulfillment). These components reflect the “emotional component” and “cognitive component” of well-being, respectively.

Psychological well-being is often associated with the concept of flourishing, containing the elements of meaningfulness/purpose in life and ongoing pursuit of self-development.

Of these two broad types, it appears that people with high levels of hedonic well-being don’t feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being.

But, research by Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues (2014) have found some convincing evidence at the gene expression level that people experiencing higher life purpose had significantly lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes compared to those who just reported being emotionally “happy” on a daily basis. In their study, the researchers drew blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for subjective well-being and psychological well-being. The research team used the CTRA gene-expression profile to map the potentially distinct biological effects of these two types of “happiness.”

This study is one of the first to suggest that “happiness” is not always beneficial for health and it’s important to distinguish exactly what is being measured when this concept is being discussed.

Feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer, no matter what your age.  These are new findings by Patrick Hill of Carelton University Hill and colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center who decided to explore this question, taking advantage of the nationally representative data available from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.

Over the 14-year follow-up period represented in the MIDUS data, 569 of the participants had died (about 9% of the sample). Those who had died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors4.

Is Happier Always Better?

A relatively new study has tried to answer this question by analyzing data from 118,519 respondents of the World Values Study, an intense data collection project with college students entering 25 mostly elite Universities, and four longitudinal data sets exploring the link between self-reported happiness and various outcomes such as educational degrees obtained, income levels, relationship satisfaction and duration5. These studies revealed a consistent pattern of results:

  • The optimal level of happiness in the domains of interpersonal relationships is the highest possible level of happiness
  • In contrast, the optimal level of happiness for achievement of outcomes (e.g., salary, income, education) is a moderate (but still high) level of happiness

The authors in this study stress that it is not bad to be very happy nor is it desirable to be unhappy.

They are suggesting that for those individuals whose primary values in work and life focus on achievement, only moderate levels of happiness may be optimal. For those whose values prioritize close relationships, it is the highest level of happiness possible given one’s genetic set point, situation and daily activities that are desirable. The benefit of happy moods are also likely influenced by one’s personality and work/life values and likely to differ across cultures.

Our own research with our stress and resilience tool called StressScan has revealed some interesting results when we analyze the items composing our own Well-Being/Happiness scale with a sample of 1,350 working professionals in diverse industries:

Percent Answering “Often” or “Always”

  • 70.7% — Genuinely enjoying the things you are involved in
  • 66.3% — Feeling that your future looks hopeful and promising
  • 68.5% — Pleased with life overall

In general, most Americans report positive life satisfaction but also tend to report a high level of work and life stress6.

I guess whether you are male or female, it’s still tough to have it all…..Be well….

  1. Nowack, K. (2008). Coaching for Stress: StressScan. Editor: Jonathan Passmore, Psychometrics in Coaching, Association for Coaching, UK, pp. 254-274 []
  2. Steptoe, A. et al. (2007). Neuroendocrine and inflammatory factors associated with positive affect in healthy men and women: The Whitehall study II. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167, 96-102 []
  3. Fredrickson, B. et al. (2014). A functional perspective on human well-being. PNAS, doi=10.1073 []
  4. P. L. Hill, N. A. Turiano. Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614531799 []
  5. Oishi, S. et al., (2007). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2 (4) 346-360 []
  6. Nowack, K. (2006). Optimising Employee Resilience: Coaching to Help Individuals Modify Lifestyle. Stress News, International Journal of Stress Management, Volume 18, 9-12 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Talent Management, Wellness

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