Countless research studies have documented the psychological and physical benefits associated with happiness. Happy people live longer, experience a reduced risk of heart disease and generally lead more fulfilling lives than their less happy peers. What exactly does happiness do to the body that makes it so healthy?
The answer might lie in the genetic code.
Different types of happiness influence different genes
In a 2013 study entitled “A functional genomic perspective on human well-being,” a research team comprised of scientists from UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill performed the first study of its kind: They investigated how happiness impacted genetic expression. Scientists have long known that negative emotions such as stress, misery and anxiety are capable of altering gene expression. No other studies, however, have examined whether or not happiness could also alter genetics.
In this study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists compared two types of happiness: eudaimonic and hedonic.
Eudaimonic happiness is associated with having “a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life,” according to UCLA newsroom writer Mark Wheeler. People who have high levels of eudaimonic happiness feel like they’re making a positive mark on their community, whether by volunteering or otherwise contributing to the happiness of others.
Hedonic happiness, meanwhile, is associated with personal gratification such as buying a new car, watching a good movie or eating a savory meal.
Scientists surveyed 80 adults about their levels of eudaimonic and hedonic happiness.
Eudaimonic happiness questions included:
- How often did you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?
- How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?
- How often did you feel that you belonged to a community?
Hedonic happiness questions included:
- How often did you feel happy?
- How often did you feel interested in life?
- How often did you feel satisfied?
Participants then received a blood test so that scientists could evaluate the genetic impact of each form of happiness. Specifically, the scientists examined a gene expression profile known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), a shift in gene expression that increases inflammation and decreases the presence of antibody and antiviral genes.
People with high levels of eudaimonic happiness demonstrated decreased inflammation and increased levels of antibody and antiviral genes, making them better at protecting their body from infectious diseases and foreign materials. In contrast, people with high levels of hedonic well-being had high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody expression.
Both groups, meanwhile, reported equal feelings of positivity.
What this study’s results mean
“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,” explained Steven Cole, Ph.D., professor at UCLA and senior author of the research. “Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”
Thankfully, hedonic and eudaimonic happiness are not mutually exclusive. Individuals can still benefit from treating themselves now and again, at least when it comes to increasing their mood. It wouldn’t hurt, however, to throw in some eudaimonic activities as well.
In other words, take the time to volunteer, foster close relationships and work on becoming the person you want to be – your genes will thank you.
Sovereign Mental Health Services offers a unique brain wellness program that teaches patients ways in which they can increase happiness and well-being in their daily life. For further information, please contact 866-954-0529.