While pleasurable experiences may lift your spirits, the ones that leave you with a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships may do even more: protect the body against ill health.
When researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Princeton University interviewed a group of older women and assessed their emotional and physical well-being, or levels of optimal health, they found that the people who were purposefully engaged in life tended to have better levels of physical functioning.
The findings are described in the September issue of Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, a journal of the Royal Society of London.
"There's nothing new about a study that shows links between psychology and biology," says Carol Ryff, UW-Madison psychology professor and lead author of the paper. "What's novel about this one is that it looks at varieties of positive human functioning and how they relate to physical health."
As she explains, most researchers have looked for connections between emotional dysfunction, such as stress or loneliness, and physical illness, such as high blood pressure. But, she adds, ill-being is not simply the flip side of well-being, nor is well-being simply the absence of ill-being. In other words, studying one won't explain much about the other.
To begin to understand the role of good mental health on physical functioning, Ryff, along with Burt Singer at Princeton University and Gayle Love at UW-Madison, looked for links between two forms of well-being and health, specifically biological markers for stress, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
For the study, the researchers asked 135 women between the ages of 61 to 91 to rate their levels of two different types of positive emotional functioning: hedonic well-being, such as joy or happiness resulting from pleasurable experiences; and eudaimonic well-being, which results from purposeful life engagement, continued personal growth, positive relationships with others, positive self-regard and the sense that one can master the surrounding environment.
"The hedonic is about happiness, feeling good, pleasure and gratification," explains Ryff. "The eudaimonic has a different philosophical tradition - it's not so much about feeling good, but about being actively engaged in life and making the most of your talents and capacities, regardless of how old you are."
When the researchers compared the participants' reported levels of both types of good emotional health to their physical charts, the results surprised them. They had expected that people who had higher levels of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being would be in better health. But, this connection was only evident in the women who reported high levels of eudaimonic well-being.
For example, people who reported high levels of purpose in life had lower levels of stress hormones throughout the day; lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, which can result in arthritis, hardening of the arteries and diabetes; higher levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and weighed less. Similarly, people with higher levels of environmental mastery and self-acceptance had lower levels of sugar in the blood, and those with environmental mastery and positive relationships tended to sleep better and longer.
Hedonic well-being, on the other hand, showed its positive health effects only in terms of higher levels of HDL cholesterol.
"These preliminary findings tells us that we can achieve good health and well-being by not just eating right, exercising and managing stress, but by living purposeful and meaningful lives," says Ryff. "Life enrichment may be part of what helps keep older people better regulated."
Because the study focused only on older women and measured levels of emotional and physical health at only one point in their lives, Ryff says the findings at this point cannot be generalized to any other group. But she suspects that high levels of eudaimonic well-being may protect the physical health of most individuals, particularly those who appear to defy social expectations that they should be unhealthy.
If the preliminary findings hold up in additional studies, Ryff asks, "Does this mean that people who do not have eudaimonic well-being are sentenced to live a life with poor biological well-being?" Her answer: "Well-being is something that everyone has the capacity and potential to experience - it's within the reach of anyone."
She adds that research on "well-being therapy," which could promote purposeful life engagement among those who most need it, such as the chronically depressed, is already under way.