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Why Resilience Technology: Happiness and Health

How Happiness Improves Resilience

What creates resilience—and what can you create in your own life to help your own ability to withstand challenges? Dr. Janxin Leu Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in cultural contexts and human resilience at HopeLab, is examining how social technology can affect your well being. In the first of a three-part series on resilience technology, she explains how the happiness you get from helping others can actually help you on a physical level.

We often think of happiness as feeling good in the moment. But there’s a more potent kind of happiness that can have a more positive impact on our well-being: the happiness that comes from doing good. Happiness from doing good can give you a sense of purpose in life, and new insights from science show that purpose, or the pursuit of something that is meaningful to you, can improve your health, even at the genetic level.

Feeling Good vs. Doing Good

A group of researchers led by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina compared happiness from feeling good versus doing good to determine which is the better foil to being stressed, defensive, and feeling miserable and how each impact physical health. To do this, the researchers asked 80 people questions about how happy they felt and how depressed they felt, then drew their blood to analyze the genes in their white blood cells.

The researchers found that at a psychological level happiness from both feeling good and doing good were inversely related to depression. In other words, the excitement of a fun new experience can counter depression, and so can helping a friend in need. But the two types of happiness had a very different impact at a genetic level.

The Happiness/Healthiness Link

Happiness from doing good was linked with reduced inflammation in the body. This is healthy—we want to see low levels of inflammation in our bodies, in general. Inflammation is helpful in small amounts – it can be a sign of healing, like the swelling around a cut or a bruise. But inflammation also serves as an inadvertent fertilizer for chronic diseases like cancer and cardio vascular disease. Think of it this way: Inflammation is like an iron—it’s really good at solving a small set of problems, like getting the wrinkle out of a shirt. But if you leave it on for too long, it will burn your house down.

Happiness from doing good was also linked with an increase of antiviral genes. This is also healthy. These genes help produce an antibody response that protects us against viruses like the common cold. Higher levels of antiviral genes can help keep us healthier.

Good for You

People with high levels of happiness from short-term, feel-good experiences showed a different pattern. Although they experienced happiness, their biology was going in a different direction. This doesn’t mean that there’s any harm in chasing happiness for the sake of happiness. But the absence of happiness from doing good may decrease your ability to prevent disease.

The takeaway is this: Cultivating a sense of purpose in life by doing good, not just pursuing short-term gratification, sets us up for feeling happy and making us healthier. A sense of purpose in doing good is also a key component to resilience, or the ability to bounce back from adversity. Currently, there are lots of apps and other technology that help us feel good, but there are far fewer that get us into the mindset of doing good.

Check back for Dr. Leu’s next blog post on how healthy social connections can affect your psychological and physical health. Tell us the different ways that you generate true happiness in your life in the comment section below.

About the Author:

Janxin Leu (pronounced “Jen-shing Loo”) plays a lead role in HopeLab’s initiative to promote human resilience and inner values through social tech innovation. Prior to joining HopeLab in April 2013, Dr. Leu was Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, where her research focused on how cultural contexts influence the mind, such as how Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian traditions shape emotion and cognition. Based on an understanding of the mind-body connection, perspective-taking, and socio-emotional learning, she created the cultural curriculum for the Emmy-nominated Nick, Jr. show Ni hao, Kai-lan! Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and the Seattle Times. Dr. Leu was elected as a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. and M.A. in Psychology from Stanford University. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and daughter.

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