This summer, researchers at UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, when it comes to our genes, there’s a difference between happiness derived from feeling good and that which comes from doing good. According to the study, people whose happiness stemmed from having a sense of purpose and meaning in life had healthier gene expression patterns than those whose happiness was primarily linked to pleasure. In fact, the latter group of “feel-gooders” had a stress-related gene pattern similar to those who endure chronic adversity.
Apparently, our genes know the difference between deep and superficial happiness. It took me more than 35 years to learn that lesson.
My own pursuit of pleasure took me on lots of misadventures in my 20s, and many of them centered on food, alcohol, nightlife, men, and fun for its own sake in big, glamorous cities. As I entered my 30s, I brought some of these behaviors with me as I began to carve out a career in radio journalism. Engrossed in my work, I soon took new pleasure from the highs of hearing my stories on the air and becoming a mini celebrity.
About five years later, it all came crashing down when I had a panic attack, on the air, in the middle of a newscast.
The incident sent me on an intense healing journey as I sought to know the physical, emotional, and psychological reasons behind the panic attack, my first and only full-blown episode. I spent the following year seeing healers of all kinds, devouring self-help and spiritual literature, changing my lifestyle and planting myself in therapy and recovery groups to bring my own darkness to the light. These activities quickly became my new occupation, even as I still dutifully performed my job.
A year later, I left my radio career. Not only because I lived in fear of losing it on the air again, but because I no longer had an interest in reporting the news. In fact, I probably never had a “nose for news” so much as a desire to tell inspiring stories. I loved meeting interesting, progressive people and spreading helpful information. My favorite moments in radio were when listeners called to say that they wanted to know more about something I’d reported. Covering corruption and crime stories, on the other hand, left me cold.
Soon after taking the leap to freelance and figure out my next move, I met a man named John who called himself a psychic. We became gym buddies and, one day, John told me that he felt moved to offer me a free reading. Among other uncannily accurate things he told me during the reading, John said, “You will teach one day, in your purpose way.”
His words wouldn’t make sense to me for a few years.
Eventually, it became crystal clear that I was in the middle of a major life change, a not just a job search. I applied to be a volunteer at Kripalu for the summer, having been there as a guest and begun a yoga practice with a beloved Kripalu teacher-turned-friend.
And that’s when my quest for meaningful happiness found its expression and community.
At Kripalu I met people like me, the person who I am deep down inside—yogis, spiritual seekers, peace lovers, and hippies born too late to technically be called hippies. I’d found my tribe and I felt at home, staying there for two years to live, work, and breathe in this new lifestyle, which included healthy eating, ecstatic dancing, drumming, chanting, emoting, hiking, howling at the moon, and doing lots of yoga. It didn’t include alcohol, television, junk food, cruising, or partying into the wee hours—things that used to make me “happy.”
I left Kripalu a certified yoga teacher, a workshop leader, and a writer whose stories now came from the heart and from my own life. During those two years, I’d barely even looked at the news, noticing that what I needed to know usually found its way to me.
Today my thrills come from helping others who seek the kind of happiness that comes from contributing their gifts and passions to the world and doing what they love to do. My work as a teacher, coach, and writer is profoundly meaningful to me. I don’t know how my genes are doing, but my annual physicals are usually full of good news and I feel healthier and happier.
Recalling John’s cryptic message, I’ve come to realize that I lost my voice on the air all those years ago in order to find it, and use it, on purpose.
(Note: This post was written for the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and also appears here: http://kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2013/09/16/living-on-purpose/)