A good state of mind that is, your happiness affects your
genes, scientists say. In the first study of its kind, researchers from UCLA's
Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina
examined how positive psychology impacts human gene expression.
What they found is that different types of happiness have
surprisingly different effects on the human genome.
People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic
well-being, the kind of happiness that
comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life (think Mother
Teresa) showed very favourable gene expression
profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene
expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.
However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic
well-being, the type of happiness that
comes from consummatory self-gratification (think most celebrities) actually showed just the opposite. They had an
adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and
antibody gene expression.
The report appears in the current online edition of the
journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For the last 10 years, Steven Cole, a UCLA professor of
medicine and a member of the UCLA Cousins Center, and his colleagues, including
first author Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, have
been examining how the human genome responds to stress, misery, fear and all kinds
of negative psychology.
In this study, though, the researchers asked how the human
genome might respond to positive psychology. Is it just the opposite of stress
and misery, or does positive well-being activate a different kind of gene
The researchers examined the biological implications of both
hedonic and eudaimonic well-being through the lens of the human genome, a
system of some 21 000 genes that has evolved fundamentally to help humans
survive and be well.
Previous studies had found that circulating immune cells
show a systematic shift in baseline gene-expression profiles during extended
periods of stress, threat or uncertainty. Known as conserved transcriptional
response to adversity, or CTRA, this shift is characterised by an increased
expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of
genes involved in antiviral responses.
The human genome
This response, Cole noted, likely evolved to help the immune
system counter the changing patterns of microbial threat that were ancestrally
associated with changing socio-environmental conditions; these threats included
bacterial infection from wounds caused by social conflict and an increased risk
of viral infection associated with social contact.
"But in contemporary society and our very different
environment, chronic activation by social or symbolic threats can promote
inflammation and cause cardiovascular, neurodegenerative and other diseases and
can impair resistance to viral infections," said Cole, the senior author
of the research.
In the present study, the researchers drew blood samples
from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being,
as well as potentially confounding negative psychological and behavioural
factors. The team used the CTRA gene-expression profile to map the potentially
distinct biological effects of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.
And while those with eudaimonic well-being showed favourable
gene-expression profiles in their immune cells and those with hedonic
well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile. "People with high
levels of hedonic well-being didn't feel any worse than those with high levels
of eudaimonic well-being," Cole said. "Both seemed to have the same
high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very
differently, even though their emotional states were similarly positive.
"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," he said. "Apparently,
the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness
than are conscious minds."