THE BLOG

Is Your Happiness Healthy?

08/14/2013 08:17 am ET | Updated Oct 13, 2013

By now the word is out. Personal happiness can either hurt or help your physical well-being. It's all a matter of where your happiness comes from.

Happiness derived solely from self-gratifying activities (what psychologists call hedonic happiness) can negatively affect your health, while happiness that results from pursuing a greater purpose in life is physically beneficial. Psychologists call the latter form of well-being eudaimonic happiness and research shows it reduces inflammation in the body and boosts our immune response.

These are the findings from a recent study published by the National Academy of Science. Not surprisingly, the article has gone viral.

The question now is what do we do with this information? How do we use it to live healthier, happier and more satisfying lives?

The researchers didn't ask these questions, but we can find a clue in the comments of one of the study's co-authors, Steven Cole. When asked why the two types of happiness had different biological effects, Cole told CNN:

"Hedonic well-being is dependent on your taking self-involved action to constantly feed this positive emotion machine... If something threatens your ability to seek out this kind of personal happiness -- if you get injured, for instance, or you experience a loss -- your entire source of well-being is threatened. You are living closer to the edge of that kind of stress.

"But if you find well-being in the connections you have to others and in pursuing something that involves collaborating with other people, if in that circumstance you get sick or injured or suffer a personal loss, that community you've worked so hard to connect to, they will help you get through."

Cole is onto something here, and confirms what many of us know. When we work with other people in the pursuit of a meaningful goal, something extraordinary happens.

We begin to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves. Our identity shifts from simply being "me," to "we." The group becomes, in a sense, part of who we are. We share a common well-being. As a result, we develop a deep commitment to each other and to our purpose. Excitement builds and a movement is born.

Have you ever experienced this? Feels amazing, right? This is eudaimonic happiness.

I call it healthy happiness.

Below are six steps you can take to start practicing healthy happiness.

Love yourself. This may sound strange, but it's the place to start. Before we can love others and contribute to the greater good, we need some measure of positive self-regard. If not, we'll use the relationships we form and the opportunities we have to satisfy our unmet needs and anxieties. This is the exact opposite of what healthy happiness demands.

Begin by acknowledging your strengths, weaknesses and fears. Recognize that they make you who you are. Embrace this reality and be compassionate to yourself. After all, everyone experiences fear and anxiety. Admittedly, this is a life-long process and it's never too early or late to begin.

Shift your focus from me to thee. After accepting who you are, broaden your awareness to those around you. Extend the same compassion to them that you have for yourself. Within appropriate boundaries, seek out ways to be caring and considerate.

As it turns out, what our parents taught us -- put other people first -- is not only good manners, but also good for our health.

Invest in relationships. Connect with people regularly. Make it a priority to create healthy lasting bonds with people who support, respect and are honest with you. This is one of the most important things you can do to start living a healthy, happy life.

Seek out opportunities to serve others. Volunteer at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, serve in your place of worship, mentor at-risk youth. Be creative. The opportunities are endless. Just make sure the results are, at least occasionally, tangible. This keeps you energized and inspired.

Create meaning in everything you do. If you've not read Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, do it. It will transform the way you approach life and work.

Practice thankfulness. Set aside time to acknowledge the people and opportunities you have in your life. Show gratitude by writing a letter or email to those who have, and continue to have, an impact in your life.

Achieving healthy happiness involves shifting our effort away from self-gratification to "other-gratification" -- doing something in the service of others. When we do it for the simple reason of wanting to make a difference, we end up experiencing joy and satisfaction, and physical well-being, in return.

Now that's something to get excited about.

I'd love to hear how you create healthy happiness in your life. Leave your comments below or email me.

Dr. Frank Niles is a behavioral scientist, adventure athlete, coach, and speaker. He helps people discover what they love to do and then become really good at it.

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