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Two types of happiness: One alters our genes in a bad way

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
True happiness that comes from serving others makes our genes happy too.

If you are a happy person with a purpose in life, new research shows your genes are happy too. According to researchers, our state of mind has more of an influence on what happens at a cellular level than we might realize, found in a first of a kind study. What also matters to our genes is the type of happiness we experience.

Two types of happiness have very different effects on genes

An investigation from a team of scientists at UCLA also found happiness that comes in two forms matters when it comes to favorable gene expression that helps us fight off disease.

Compared to people whose happiness comes from having a purpose in life, those who find hedonistic pleasures make them smile showed high levels of inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

The report that appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comes from researchers UCLA professor of medicine Steven Cole, and colleagues, including first author Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina.

The scientists have been studying the effect of negative psychological conditions and their effect on genes for more than ten years.

Scientists know stress, unhappiness, fear, pain and misery can shift gene-expression profiles from chronic stress through a process known as as conserved transcriptional response to adversity, or CTRA that raises inflammation and lowers the antiviral response in the body.

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This time the researchers wanted to see what happens to genome processes when we are in a happy state of mind.

The researchers looked at 21,000 genes from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for two types of well-being that help us survive and stay healthy.

They then profiled the genes to see how they respond to both hedonic (greedy or decadent) and eudaimonic (contented) well-being, taking into account other negative psychological factors and confounders.

Hedonic pleasure is inflammatory

The results showed the genes of hedonistic individuals had less favorable gene expression in their immune cells compared to those with eudaimonic well-being, though there was no difference in the way they felt.

“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,” Cole said in a press release.

"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. Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds,” he adds."

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that true happiness and contentment that comes from life experiences instead of wealth is healthier and can help us live longer. Research has shown social engagement, having a close circle of friends and being involved in helping others. The finding is the first to show when we are genuinely happy our genes are happier and more positive too.

doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110
July 29, 2013