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Having a purpose in life makes gene expression 'healthier'

5 August 2013
Appeared in BioNews 716

Different types of happiness affect the human genome in different ways, according to research from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Researchers found that people who live 'hedonic' lifestyles of instant self-gratification had patterns of gene expression similar to those with depression or under stress. However, people who live towards a greater purpose in life, 'eudaimonic wellbeing', were seen to have a much healthier gene expression profile.

This is the first investigation of its kind to study the effects of positive psychology on gene expression.

Lead researcher Professor Steven Cole told CNN: 'I know what misery looks like on a genetic level. I can look at white blood cells and see a physical response to stress and misery, but we knew very little about how – if at all – positive psychology gets disseminated to the body. That’s what this study does'.

The researchers assessed 80 adults for hedonic and eudaimonic happiness by asking questions such as 'How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?' and 'How often did you feel satisfied?'. They then took a blood sample and analysed gene expression in the volunteers’ white blood cells.

Professor Cole’s team found that, despite causing similar levels of happiness, people who showed high levels of eudaimonic wellbeing had a 'healthier' genome than more hedonic individuals. Eudaimonic individuals had a 30 percent increase in antibody gene activity and reduced activation of inflammation-causing genes. Conversely, hedonic individuals saw a 20 percent increase in inflammation-causing gene activity and a 20 percent reduction in antibody gene activity. This is a similar profile to people experiencing depression or stress and is called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA).

CTRA evolved to help our immune system protect us from microbes linked to changing social conditions, such as infected wounds from fights, or viral infection from contact with new groups. However, long term activation of the CTRA profile can lower human immunity and can cause cardiovascular disease.

However, study author Professor Barbara Fredrickson, from the University of North Carolina, explains that it is not all bad for hedonic individuals: 'Keep in mind positives go with both kind of wellbeing'.

A functional genomic perspective on human well-being
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) |  29 July 2013
A particular kind of happiness affects your genes
Medical News Today |  1 August 2013
Be Happy: Your Genes May Thank You for It
Science Daily (press release) |  5 August 2013
The right kind of happy
The Economist - Blogs |  1 August 2013
Your happiness type matters
CNN |  30 July 2013
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