Acting for the greater good, genetically

We know from many studies that both forms of well-being  – self centered well being, like that of indulging in a good meal, and the feeling of having done good – being generous, like that of doing volunteer work – are associated with improved physical and mental health (beyond the effects of reduced stress and depression).  But is there a difference in our bodies between these two types of well being?

A team from the University of California at Los Angeles led by Steven W. Cole, professor of medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, looked at the biological influence of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being through the human genome. They were interested in the pattern of gene expression within people’s immune cells.

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” that are implicated in a wide variety of human ills, including arthritis and heart disease, and “decreased expression of genes involved in … antiviral responses,” the study noted. Cole and colleagues coined the phrase “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” or CTRA to describe this shift. In short, the functional genomic fingerprint of chronic stress sets us up for illness.

But if all happiness is created equal, and equally opposite to ill-being, then patterns of gene expression should be the same regardless of hedonic or eudaimonic well-being, right?  Not so.

Eudaimonic well-being was, indeed, associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. In contrast, hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase in the CTRA profile. Their genomics-based analyses, the authors reported, reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being.

So doing good selflessly will effectively lengthen your life.   How cool is that.

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