All would agree that a happy state of mind is beneficial to a healthy lifestyle. Now, a new UCLA study has found that your state of mind actually affects your genes. Researchers at UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina examined how positive psychology impacts human gene expression. They note that it is the first study of its kind to find that different types of happiness have surprisingly different effects on the human genome. The findings were published online on July 29 the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
People who have high levels of eudaimonic well-being, the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life (i.e., Mother Theresa), 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, such as the type of happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification (i.e., most celebrities), actually showed just the opposite. They had an adverse gene expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.
For the last 10 years, senior author Steven Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and Cousins Center member, and his colleagues, including first author Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, have been examining how the human genome responds to stress, misery, fear, and all types of negative psychology. However, in this study, the researchers asked how the human genome might respond to positive psychology. Is it just the opposite of stress and misery, or does positive well-being activate a different kind of gene expression program?
The researchers examined the biological implications of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being through the lens of the human genome—a system of some 21,000 genes that has evolved fundamentally to help humans survive and be well. Previous studies have found that circulating immune cells show a systematic shift in baseline gene expression profiles during extended periods of stress, threat, or uncertainty. Known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), it is characterized by an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation, and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. This response, noted Dr. Cole, likely evolved to help the immune system counter the changing patterns of microbial threat ancestrally associated with changing socioenvironmental conditions, such as bacterial infection from wounds caused by social conflict, or an increased risk of viral infection associated with social contact. He added, “But in contemporary society, and our very different environment, chronic activation by social or symbolic threats can promote inflammation, and cause cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, and other diseases, and impair resistance to viral infections.”
In the present study, the researchers 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. They used the CTRA gene expression profile to map 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, “Interestingly, people with high levels of hedonic well-being didn’t feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being,” noted Dr. Cole. “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,” said Dr. Cole. “Apparently the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”