happiness influences human gene expression, researchers have found,
and different kinds of happiness have surprisingly different effects on
our physical health.
Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina note that philosophers since antiquity have distinguished between hedonic wellbeing-the kind of happiness that comes from satisfaction from pleasurable experiences-and eudaimonic wellbeing-the
kind that comes from striving toward meaning and noble purpose beyond
self gratification. It turns out the molecular mechanics of good health
tend to favor people who find happiness striving for higher goals.
PhD, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at
UCLA and a member of the Cousins Center, and colleagues including Barbara Frederickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychology Lab
at the University of North Carolina, have spent a decade studying how
stress, fear, loneliness and other miseries impact the human genome. In
his paper "Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression: Mechanisms and Implications for Public Health,"
Cole reported that people who experienced long term loneliness had a
gene expression profile showing high inflammation and lower immune
function. Inflammation related illnesses include heart disease,
neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer.
stress-related gene expression profile characterized by high
inflammation and low immunity is known as CTRA, for "conserved
transcriptional response to adversity." Cole and colleagues wanted to
find whether happiness is just the opposite of misery, or whether it
would activate a different kind of gene expression. They took blood
samples from 80 healthy adults assessed as having either hedonic or
eudaimonic happiness, and used the CTRA gene expression profile to
examine potential biological differences. Both groups had high levels of
positive emotion. Those in the eudaimonic wellbeing group had favorable
gene expression profiles, with low inflammation and functioning
immunity, while those in the hedonic wellbeing group showed the opposite
gene expression profiles. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
this study shows is that doing good and feeling good have very
different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar
levels of positive emotion," Cole, the lead author, said in a UCLA release.
"Apparently the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways
of achieving happiness than are our conscious minds." The UCLA release
says this research, showing specific signals and pathways associated
with a positive state of mind and gene expression, is the first of its
his paper on social regulation of genes, Cole wrote that the human
genome is influenced by social environment, and that the "regulatory
architecture" of the genome lies outside the cell "in the constraints
and affordances present in the social ecology."
knowledge and technological advances that allow researchers to examine
the way genes and environment interact on a molecular level can have
profound impact in public health, he suggests. "Social regulation of
gene expression implies many aspects of individual health actually
constitute a form of public health in the sense that they emerge as
properties of an interconnected system of human beings," the paper says.
In an interview, Frederickson
suggested our bodies may respond better to happiness related to human
connectedness and purpose than to hedonic wellbeing, which she called
the emotional equivalent of empty calories.