Despite the rampant sales of books which imply the contrary, a remarkable multi-disciplinary study of genomic expression of “well-being” from UF , UNC & UCLA look at inducible gene activity for inflammatory mediators such as IL 6, 8 and TNF in response to the philosophical camps of instant self-gratification behavior (hedonic) vs the “eudaimonic” form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond just “getting one’s rocks off.” The more ethereal aspects of psychological well-being seem somewhat abstruse. However, the clear association of IL 4 and 10 expression inhibition, and C-reactive protein and TNF as inflammatory markers predictive of poor cardiac/CNS outcome in CABG populations and the population overall for MI/stroke risk is well established. The article recognizes its own limitations but concluded that the simple pursuit of a “stress-free life” for its own sake does NOT favor the inhibited expression of disease-promoting genes, in contrast to a eudaimonic approach.
MEANING in life that leads to happiness being more important than happiness itself? I am somewhat relieved by this possible epiphany. Though we all have our off-days, one might hope that a virtuous life leading to a happy life is more important than a simply happy life at any cost. Modern genetics substantiating the few positive aspects of religious doctrine? Perhaps.
This contemporary perspective is in line with Victor Frankl’s observation in 1946 that “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed, or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.” Frankl’s plights and insights were made apparent to me after learning what intact convictions Ilan Ramon died with aboard STS-107 Columbia in 2003. (Ramon and his son both died not of inflammatory-mediated disease, but the actual flames in their respective terminal environments). Frankl himself, a victim of Nazi Germany wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” post-war faster than I could read it. He consoled and counseled peers in Bergen-Belsen with a conviction despite his woes that would level anyone with heart. A prominent Austrian neurologist & psychologist, he described a tripartite template for meaningful living which rings true to the eudaimonic individual. "A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how' ". The principles of love (the bridge between others), the meaningfulness derived from one’s contributions (labour for others), and the ability to derive strength from suffering (feeling worthy of its challenges) allude to selflessness being a possible ingredient for the achievement of meaning in life.
Thank goodness that science is starting to substantiate that greater reward might await aspiration greater than the simple vapid pursuit of happiness for its own sake…