I remember the birth of our daughter vividly. My wife was asked if she wanted the epidural. The pain was increasing with every centimeter of dilation. My mother-in-law had me look up the side effects of the four to five pain-relieving options offered to my wife Laura. As I researched each one, all of them came back with some sort of downfall.
- Drowsiness in the baby.
- Numbness in the baby.
- Temporary blindness in the baby.
- Possible heart failure in the baby.
“Absolutely not!” Laura shouted. She was going into this thing feeling every bit of pain if it meant the most successful birth for our child. And she did it. Without an epidural or other pain medication. She utilized all her breathing techniques from years of studying theater in high school and college. I squeezed her hand, held her convulsing legs, and informed her of every upcoming contraction.
What kind of person would do this? Who would deliberately choose pain like this?
After calling him for an hour, our doctor rushed in at the very last minute (literally) and I watched as the entire place transformed from a cozy lounge into a surgical operating room. Lights were pulled down from the ceiling, fifteen other strangers walked in with their own specialized motive, and the doctor began the episiotomy. Then I witnessed this sequence play out in my wife’s face in a matter of milliseconds.
She hears our baby girl cry
The joy that flooded over her face made no sense in comparison to the pain her body was coping with. Yet, she said she would choose it again. She would choose to suffer this way because it led to a most fulfilled purpose; Motherhood.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this kind of joy is known as Eudemonic happiness. Eudemonia is a Greek word that translates to something like “human flourishing”. Aristotle spoke a lot on the “science of happiness” describing it as an exercise of virtue.
My wife literally exercised multiple virtues during childbirth which led to ultimate happiness so strong we had to give her a name, protect her, feed her, educate her, and help her grown and transform. Her suffering birthed joy.
Does suffering make us happier? This was put to the test a year prior to our daughter’s birth. In 2013, UCLA and the University of North Carolina got together to study the effects of happiness on the human body. They put two forms of happiness to the test; Eudemonic Well-Being and Hedonic Well-Being. The goal was to see how happiness affected the human genome. Drawing blood samples from hedonistic (Pleasure Seekers) and eudemonic (life-givers) adults, this is what they discovered:
The unselfishly happy, whose feelings of well-being involved a deep sense of purpose in life, had a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.
This discovery signifies that the more tethered you are to your purpose, despite any physical or emotional pain it may cause, your body gains the ability to fight disease better. Think of eudemonic well-being as someone who finds joy in giving their life away. They completely empty themselves into the other through their generosity, talents, and humanism. A deeper purpose exists. It could be a relationship with a spouse, a best friend, a child, or a defined career path. It could be as simple as wanting to see your kids mature into loving adults or a passionate pursuit of excellence in becoming the best guitar player you can be.
Eudemonic people find joy in sharing what they have rather than holding onto it for themselves. This is genetically expressed through their genes in helping them live longer.
The best example of eudemonic well-being is Forrest Gump. Despite setbacks in his childhood, everything he does in the film is essential for someone else. He scores touchdowns for his football coach, he buys a shrimping boat for his best friend Bubba, he inspires the world through long-distance running for the love of his life Jenny (whether he realizes that or not), and he retires early to dedicate his life to raising his son. Ultimately, by giving his life away, Forrest leads the most fulfilled life of all the characters.
Happy hedonists, meanwhile, wrapped up in materialistic pleasures, had weaker immune systems, resulting in inflammation that can lead to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Hedonism is focused on pleasure. It’s about consummatory self-gratification. It can be as simple as indulging in your favorite pastry or as selfish as stealing a colleague’s promotion. The common theme of hedonism is that it’s “happy effects” are temporary and constantly fleeting. They feel good at the moment, but after the moment wears off the hedonist looks for something else to bring him pleasure. It equates pleasure to happiness. As author Matthew Kelly points out, “ When we eat we feel pleasure. That’s why we don’t stop eating.”
According to the study though, a life of hedonism is one that will slowly kill you. Even though both the eudemonic and hedonist felt the same positive emotion during the research, their genes were revealing a different story. Hedonists revealed higher levels of stress underlying those positive feelings. Dr. Stephen Cole, who was a part of the study said:
What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion. Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.
If Eudmeonic well-being is about giving away one’s life, then Hedonic well-being is about taking from others. It can potentially lead to using others for one’s own gain. It doesn’t start out this way, but untapped can become something similar to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter Series.
Voldemort was only concerned about himself, using others in his pursuit to dominate death. The more hedonistic Voldemort becomes, the less human and more animalistic his appearance. This is what awaits a lifelong hedonist.
“The real distinction is whether your happiness is tied into purpose and meaning outside yourself.”
Choosing to suffer for a deeper purpose brings irrevocable joy. Joy lives deep in our character. It is cultivated internally. The more you give yourself away, the more it returns back to you enhanced. If we willingly take on suffering for a greater purpose, the interest gained is threefold.
I don’t mean to downplay human suffering here because there are millions of people who are not choosing their daily sufferings. I do want to express though that in many situations, especially for those living in a first-world country, tethering yourself to necessary suffering brings the joy you are looking for rather than the temporal happiness you think you want.
What is necessary suffering?
Choosing to give birth
Choosing to study over hanging with friends
Choosing to save money rather than splurge on Avocado Toast
Choosing to exercise rather than indulge in a pint of B&J
Choosing to forgive the person who harmed you the most
Choosing another outlet for anger rather than allowing it to take over you
Choosing the best interest of someone else even if it means taking the backseat
Choosing to love those who don’t love you
Choosing what is right even when you solely want justice
Choosing to sacrifice your time to help a friend of a friend move because you have the pickup truck
Choosing the best version of yourself
Choosing to play with your kids even though the TV is a free babysitter