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Be Happy: Your Genes May Thank You for It

Happiness affects your genes, scientists say, and in the first study of its kind, researchers from UCLA’s Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina examined how positive psychology affects human-gene expression. What they found is that different types of happiness have 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 — showed very favorable 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 — showed just the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

The researchers, led by Professor of Medicine Steven Cole, PhD, drew blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, as well as potentially confounding negative psychological and behavioral factors. Using a gene-expression profile known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), which measures a systematic shift in baseline gene-expression profiles of circulating immune cells during extended period of stress, threat or uncertainty, they mapped the potentially distinct biological effects of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.

And while those with eudaimonic well-being showed favorable 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,” Dr. Cole says. “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 says. “Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”

“A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Well-being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 29, 2013


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