How Happiness (“Self-Gratification vs. “Noble Purpose”) Effects Human DNA
It is well known that stress can promote positive or negative hormonal and metabolic responses within the body, and new research clarifies that perceived happiness (in its various forms/categories) may follow a similar pattern. Happiness, specifically the neuroendocrine responses associated with the sensation, can promote explicit reactions and adaptations at the molecular level within cells including DNA. According to new research led by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the sense of well-being derived from "a noble purpose" may provide cellular health benefits whereas "simple self-gratification" may have negative effects - despite an overall perceived sense of happiness. Fredrickson’s investigation, entitled "A functional genomic perspective on human well-being" was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a 'hedonic' form representing an individual's pleasurable experiences, and a deeper 'eudaimonic' form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification," explains Fredrickson and her colleagues. They describe these two types of happiness as the difference between enjoying a well-prepared meal and feeling connected to a larger community through some sort of service project; both provide a pleasurable experience (to a given extent) but create tangibly different effects within cells.
"We know from many studies that both forms of well-being are associated with improved physical and mental health, beyond the effects of reduced stress and depression," Fredrickson said. "But we have had less information on the biological bases for these relationships." Collaborating with a team from the University of California at Los Angeles led by Steven W. Cole, professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Fredrickson and her colleagues looked at the biological influence of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being on the human genome (the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information, usually encoded in DNA). They had particular interest in the pattern of gene expression within immune cells in response to these different forms of happiness. Past work by Cole and colleagues had discovered a systematic shift in gene expression associated with chronic stress, a shift "characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation". These inflammatory markers are implicated in a wide variety of disparities including arthritis, metabolic disorders, heart disease, and reduced immune system function. With this research, Cole and colleagues coined the phrase "conserved transcriptional response to adversity" or CTRA to describe this negative genomic shift. Essentially, Fredrickson illustrated that chronic stress predisposes us for illness. Considering happiness (or well-being) is opposite of ill-being (or distress), the researchers first theorized that reverse patterns of gene expression should present; regardless of the category (hedonic vs. eudaimonic). This was proven incorrect.
Eudaimonic well-being was found to be associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile, but hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase. Their analysis appears to reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being. Fredrickson found the results initially surprising, because study participants who engaged in hedonic acts reported overall feelings of well-being. The research team suggested this may just be due to the short-term (band-aid) happiness that is provided from hedonic acts; and if continually applied with efficient frequency, well-being is considered high for a given period even though negative consequences are occurring physiologically. "Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term," she said. "We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those 'empty calories' don't help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically," she continues. "At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose."