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Our Genes May Know More Than Our Minds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 29, 2015

Human 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.

Steven Cole, 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.

The 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.

"What 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 kind.

In 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."

Increasing 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.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  health  research 

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