What makes you happy? How you experience happiness and well-being might be influenced by your genes. Here’s how genomic science can help us understand how we experience eudaimonic well-being.
There are many ways to define happiness.
For some, happiness might come from the pursuits that give our lives value and purpose – self-actualization, helping others, and feeling generally useful. For others, happiness is more visceral -- it's about pleasurable physical sensations, comfort, and pain avoidance. However, most of us experience happiness as a result of some combination of the two.
Although we instinctively understand happiness when we experience it, happiness is tricky to describe. An individual's experience of happiness is subjective, but happiness, in general, is a state of positive emotional well-being. Feeling happy can result from a broad spectrum of internal and external conditions, including our biological capacity for feeling contented, our culture, and our personal values.
There are two primary happiness models in psychology: hedonic and eudaimonic. The goal of hedonic happiness is to enjoy the present moment, while eudaimonic happiness is achieved from purposefulness and fulfillment. These two categories of happiness are obtained and are linked to psychological well-being in distinct ways.
The term “hedonism” isn’t limited to clinical or purely philosophical applications. When someone or something is described as hedonistic, we immediately understand the meaning; the behaviors and circumstances are in service of the relentless pursuit of self-indulgent personal pleasure.
However, if you’re not a philosophy major or trained psychotherapist, you might not be intimately familiar with eudaimonic well-being.
The concept of eudaimonic well-being originated from Aristotle. While hedonism was first conceptualized by a Greek philosopher named Aristippus, who believed that maximizing pleasure is the fundamental objective of every human, Aristotle took a different view.
The hedonistic pursuit of pleasure can involve seeking physical and emotional satisfaction without concern for consequences. Moreover, while instantaneous pleasure might be achieved, the long-term effects could diminish wellness over time. Consuming intoxicating substances, gambling, overeating, or engaging in adrenaline-fueled activities, while initially pleasurable, might significantly compromise your health and well-being.
Aristotle believed that eudaimonia (the prefix “eu” means “good” and “daimon” means “guardian spirit”) was the true measure of personal satisfaction. Self-discipline, virtue, and personal growth might not generate feelings of immediate pleasure, but – unlike hedonism – they can facilitate a deeper sense of wellness and overall worth.
Both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are two ways of thinking about the pursuit of happiness. Eudaimonism is about engaging in activities not for our own happiness but to realize our own potential. Similar to hedonism, eudaimonic well-being is thought to be heritable to some extent.
A team of researchers explored the potential overlap of hedonism and eudaimonism and the possibility of a genetic correlation. The report, published in 2018, documented the findings of a UK Biobank study that utilized data from Caucasian residents of the United Kingdom.
Through the first-ever genome-wide association study on inheritable eudaimonic well-being, the researchers found two gene loci associated only with eudaimonic well-being.
However, the investigators also noticed a considerable overlap in the loci found to be linked to eudaimonic and hedonic well-being, implying that these two forms of well-being may not be so different after all and that they may be influenced by largely the same key genes.
There are certainly genetic components to our capacity for eudaimonic well-being. However, the 2018 study had several limitations. One example is using a single item to measure eudaimonia and hedonism among subjects. Another is the fact that the study relies upon its participants to self-report. Finally, the participants were limited to people of Caucasian ancestry.
The outcome of the study leaves more questions than answers. Is our capacity for eudaimonic well-being in our genes? Is it environmental? Do our genes determine how we respond to environmental stimuli, making eudaimonic well-being more likely under certain conditions?
What influences us toward hedonism or eudaimonia might be both within our genes and the environmental cues around us.
If you have taken an at-home DNA test, your results could reveal a bounty of fascinating genetic information. Simply access your raw DNA file from your testing provider and upload it to Genomelink for a comprehensive profile.
Find out on Genomelink if you have a genetic predisposition towards eudaimonism!