In this industry, there’s a lot of talk about happiness – as well there should be. In recent years, studies have suggested that the presence or absence of happiness affects us at a cellular level: When we’re happy, our tissues suffer less damage, our bodies have less inflammation, and our immune systems are stronger. Because we know that regular exercise contributes to greater happiness, we remind our clients that coming to the gym is good for them, that it’ll make them happier. But, in the light of a recent study, maybe we should wonder whether we’re giving happiness enough thought.
The study, led by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, suggests that different kinds of happiness can have vastly different effects on physical well-being. It divides happiness into two types: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness comes from instant gratification, such as eating a piece of chocolate cake or buying a new pair of boots. Eudaimonic comes from working toward a goal that results in a sense of meaning or a contribution to a cause.
The gist of the study is this: For participants, hedonic happiness resulted in physical effects that look much like the effects of misery and stress. That is, it increased the expression of genes involved in inflammation and decreased antiviral responses. Eudaimonic happiness resulted in lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong antiviral and antibody gene expression. Or, to put it another way, happiness that came from working for some kind of greater good — some positive effect outside of and bigger than the self — led to a much more positive genetic impact, and therefore better health.
So, back to the gym: When encouraging clients to achieve happiness, which kind of happiness are you pushing them toward? Is it the instant gratification that comes with a single tough workout? Or is it the more powerful — and healthier — sort of happiness that comes from sustained effort toward the accomplishment of a larger goal? And is there a way to increase opportunities for that other, better happiness for your clients? Can you establish a program in which if a certain number of exercisers achieves a certain goal — losing ten pounds, say — by a certain time, then you’ll donate to a good cause? Or if a member comes to the gym twenty-five times in one month, you’ll give one month’s free membership to an economically disadvantaged person in the community?
Creating possibilities for your clients to help others or to achieve some kind of greater good through their workouts could boost the positive effects of exercising even more — and that, in turn, could keep your clients coming back. Which makes everyone happy. What kind of happiness can you offer?