Your Genes and the Effect of Happiness on Health

Bet you didn’t know that your genes are much like Santa, tracking when you’re naughty or nice and rewarding good behavior while punishing the bad. According to a recent genetic study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, benevolent behavior stimulates healthy gene activity, whereas selfish behavior sets in motion ill-fated biological processes.

Happiness Classified

happy coupleResearchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a study measuring the genetic effects of happiness on health. Eighty healthy participants took an online survey designed to measure one’s primary mode of happiness.

Eudaimonic Well-being: the kind of happiness motivated by generosity and a strong sense of purpose.

Hedonic Well-being: the type of happiness driven by consumption and self-gratification.

Survey questions included…

  • How often do you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?
  • How often do you feel you have something to contribute to society?
  • How often do you feel satisfied?
  • How often do you feel interested in life?

Your Genes, Your Moral Compass

Researchers then drew blood and analyzed white blood cells to determine the effects of happiness on health and genetic expression.  Gene expression is the process by which genes regulate the production of proteins responsible for jumpstarting biological processes such as white blood cell activity (white blood cells control much of the body’s immune response).

Researchers found that participants who tested high on the hedonic happiness barometer exhibited elevated levels of inflammation—the primary cause of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes! Volunteers with a proclivity toward eudaimonic happiness showed increased levels of antibodies that ward off infection, and a decrease in pro-inflammatory markers.

What does all this mean for your health? Genes act as a sort of moral compass, and while they cannot judge your behavior, they can tell whether or not you are living your life with a sense of purpose, and impact your health negatively when you are not.

Worried you’re a bit hedonistic and your genes aren’t letting you off the hook? All volunteers demonstrated tendencies towards both types of happiness, but if you think you skew more toward the hedonic, consider cultivating a more generous lifestyle. Caring for a child or pet, implementing an exercise regimen…even nurturing your creative and artistic spirit can tap in to the benefits of benevolence and get your genes generating more health and happiness!