Positive psychology is so powerful it can change gene expression, according to a paper in PNAS.
A good state of mind, your happiness levels, affect your genes, say academics in psychoneuroimmunology, psychology and psychiatry at UCLA and the University of North Carolina. Different types of happiness have different effects on the human genome, they have determined.
People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being - the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life, like Mother Teresa - 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 — the type of happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification (celebrities) — actually showed just the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.
The researchers have experience examining how negative psychology stresses the human genome but in this paper the researchers sought to examine how the human genome might respond to positive psychology. Does positive well-being, the opposite of stress and misery, activate a different kind of gene expression program?
The researchers examined the biological implications of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being through the lens of the human genome. 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 by those in the social genomics field as conserved transcriptional response to adversity, or CTRA, this shift is characterized by an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses.
This response, said UCLA School of Medicine researcher Steven W. Cole, likely evolved to help the immune system counter the changing patterns of microbial threat that were ancestrally associated with changing socio-environmental conditions; these threats included bacterial infection from wounds caused by social conflict and an increased risk of viral infection associated with social contact. Human social genomics has sought to identify the types of genes that are subject to social-environmental regulation, the neural and molecular mechanisms that mediate the effects of social processes on gene expression.
"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 can impair resistance to viral infections," said Cole, the senior author of the research.
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. The team 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, "people with high levels of hedonic well-being didn't feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being," Cole said. "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," he said. "Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds."
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Karen M. Grewen, Kimberly A. Coffey, Sara B. Algoe, Ann M. Firestine, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, and Steven W. Cole, 'A functional genomic perspective on human well-being', PNAS July 29, 2013 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110