Why Doing Good Is Better Than Feeling Good

April 8, 2014

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.

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 much different impact at a genetic level.

Happiness from doing good was linked with reduced in inflammation in the body – or in biomedical terms, the down-regulation of pro-inflammatory genes.  This is a healthy pattern.  We want to see low levels of inflammation gene expression 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, or up-regulation, of antiviral genes. This is also a healthy pattern.  These genes help produce an antibody response that protects us against viruses like the common cold we catch from our cubicle neighbors or our children. So higher levels antiviral gene expression can help keep us healthy.

But people with high levels of happiness from feeling good showed a different pattern. Interestingly, although they experienced a lot of happiness, their biology was going in a risky direction. This doesn’t mean that happiness from feeling good is bad for you.  There’s probably no immediate harm from chasing happiness for the sake of happiness.  But the absence of happiness from doing good – if you are just a happiness junkie, only looking for hits of happiness from feeling good – may set you up for disease.

The take away is this: Cultivating a sense of purpose in life by doing good, not just pursuing momentary gratification sets us up for feeling happy and makes us healthier. A sense of purpose 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 track and help us feel good, but there are far fewer that get us into the mindset of doing good.