The Genetic Consequences of Happiness

 

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Researchers have linked happiness to changes in gene expression, with major consequences for human health and lifestyle.

For years, it has been suggested that happiness may have an effect on our overall health. Now I’m sure that at this point, many of you are murmuring “hippy bullshit” to yourselves. But I ask you to suspend you disbelief for just a moment. Researchers at UCLA have shown just that – overall happiness has a major influence on gene expression. These researchers found a noticeable difference in the expression of genes involved in the immune system between people who are happy and those that are not. But the really interesting part is this: The changes were opposite, depending on which type of happiness was reported.

To understand this, we need to look at happiness as psychologists do. They define two types of happiness – eudaimonic happiness, which is happiness derived from a sense of purpose and personal growth, and is closely linked to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Hedonic happiness, on the other hand, is rooted in material happiness and pleasure, similar to the word ‘hedonistic’. Most factors contributing to hedonic happiness can be found lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy.

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So after that little sidebar, we get back to the research. These researchers showed that eudaimonic happiness was linked to higher expression of antiviral and antibody genes, and low expression of genes involved in inflammation. However, hedonic happiness actually showed supression of antiviral and antibody genes, and an increase in inflammation. These genes are a central component of our bodies’ reaction to pathogens, and this work may have far-reaching implications for human health.

So what does this mean for humans in modern society? For a start, it shows that we are still very much in the dark about how our bodies actually function on a larger scale. I find it fascinating that something entirely emotional can have such a profound effect on our physical health. I also think, and perhaps this is more important, that it should serve as a warning. Our society is increasingly interested in material consumption and the pleasures of the flesh, while self-actualisation and personal fulfillment seem to take a back seat. While that trend is concerning in itself, it is downright frightening to think of the consequences for our health in the long term.

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