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Genes express proteins, not happiness

12 August 2013
By Dr Stuart Derbyshire
Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore and A*STAR-NUS Clinical Imaging Research Centre
Appeared in BioNews 717

A recent paper from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, describes an association between human wellbeing and gene expression (1). The authors defined wellbeing according to two forms: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic wellbeing, I imagine, will be familiar to many. That's the kind of wellbeing that is usually triggered by a really good night out (good food, drinks and company) or a really good night in (good food, drinks, company or, perhaps, no time for those things).

Eudaimonic wellbeing is also likely to be familiar to many, even if the word is not. Eudaimonic refers to a striving beyond immediate gratification towards a higher purpose or meaning. Eudaimonic wellbeing might be expressed through religion, art, music or commitment to a cause. This distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic has been long recognised by philosophers, and has been discussed in excellently accessible form by Ray Tallis.

The authors looked for associations between hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, symptoms of depression and expression of 'conserved transcriptional response to adversity' (CTRA). The details of the report are highly technical but, in essence, CTRA expression is associated with suppressed immune function and is considered bad. However, CTRA expression is also associated with an inflammatory response that may help with immediate healing. Thus, in response to short term stress (such as a physical attack) CTRA expression may be a good thing. But chronic expression will eventually suppress immune function, which is considered a bad thing.

When the authors looked at CTRA expression in people with high hedonic wellbeing they found the levels to be elevated. When they looked at CTRA expression in people with a high eudaimonic wellbeing they found the levels to be suppressed.

Interestingly, those high in hedonic wellbeing were not measurably more depressed than those high in eudaimonic wellbeing. The authors concluded: 'These opposing [CTRA expression] profiles emerged despite the fact that hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing were experienced similarly at the level of conscious affect (i.e., they showed comparably strong positive relationships to total wellbeing and comparably strong inverse relationships to depressive symptoms, and were highly correlated with one another)'.

The authors go on to suggest that measuring CTRA expression might be a more sensitive indicator of human happiness than subjective report. Moreover they argue that from the perspective of functional genomics, pursuing eudaimonic wellbeing is the better way to live.

Both those claims are dubious. The claim that CTRA expression is a better indicator of human happiness can be challenged because whatever it is that CTRA does that might be associated with happiness, CTRA itself is not a form of happiness. Molecules, even really complicated leukocyte gene expression molecules, do not feel. Only socially conscious human beings feel and if you want to know what a human being is feeling then you absolutely must tap into their subjectivity, which typically involves asking the person how they are. Of course, if your means of enquiry is really lousy (such as deciding somebody is happy based on a positive answer to one question) then it is possible that you will get a better indicator from some objective correlate (like deciding someone is afraid because they are sweating even if they say they are okay). It is possible that the questionnaires used by the authors were not good enough to find the differences in happiness between those high in hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. But it is also possible that both groups were equally happy despite the differences in CTRA expression.

Just as it is a bit topsy-turvy to try and find happiness in CTRA expression (like trying to find fear in sweat) it is also topsy-turvy to discover 'the good life' via CTRA expression. Whether the pursuit of eudaimonic wellbeing is better than the pursuit of hedonic wellbeing cannot be decided via examination of CTRA expression.

What makes for 'the good life' really does depend what kind of life the individual believes is good for them and what kinds of lives we, as a society, see as valuable. People can, within certain constraints, decide for themselves what is good for them and what we decide as a society is highly negotiable. Many philosophical and religious scholars have been persecuted because of their chosen eudaimonic calling and for living lives that would be considered good in other times or places.

To be fair to the authors they do recognise this problem when they state: 'If 'the good life' is a long and healthy life free from the allostatic load of chronic stress, threat, and uncertainty, CTRA gene expression may provide a negative reference for how not to live'.

Okay, but that's a big if and one that is contemporary and negotiable. If, instead, 'the good life' is defined as one that is highly charged, intense and short then CTRA gene expression may provide a positive reference for how we should live. After all, none of us can live forever and maybe it is better to live a quicker blaze of hedonic joy than the slower burn of eudaimonic happiness. CTRA expression may respond to the decisions we make but CTRA expression cannot tell us if the decisions are right or wrong.

(1) Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) |  2 August 2013
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