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Happiness, health and aging

January 22nd, 2014

happyBack in November, just before I left home for my shift at The Dining Room, an amazing restaurant-style facility that feeds 300+ homeless and hungry people every day, I posted a little essay on the health benefits of volunteering. The findings I wrote about – lower blood pressure, less depression, less incidence of heart disease – came from a round-up of recent research.

Now, as I rush to post this before I once again leave for my shift (which, I never get tired of saying, is the best, happiest, most soul-satisfying four hours I spend every week) I have more good news. It’s not exactly about health and the act of volunteering. It’s about the health and people who experience “high levels of well-being” (happiness) because they have found a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life. That category certainly includes those who volunteer, but you might get paid to do meaningful work. Or you might have reached satori.

Here’s the scoop from a recent UCLA study: Being happy affects your genes. Yes, definable, testable genetic effects. This is big.

Now it gets interesting. Researchers found that different types of happiness have surprising different effects on the human genome.

People who have high levels of what is called eudaimonic well-being — the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose— 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. You may remember from a past post how chronic, systemic inflammation is implicated in a host of so-called diseases of aging.

People who have relatively high levels of what’s called hedonic well-being (as in hedonist) – the kind of happiness that comes from self-gratification – show just the opposite. Their genes had adverse profiles involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody expression.

Researchers found that the meaningful lifers and the hedonists seemed (and said they were) equally happy. But the body, the wise, wise body, was able to distinguish between how they got so happy. That’s me talking. Here’s what the researchers said: “Their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive.”

I am beyond flabbergasted by this finding. It makes me very happy. But not as happy as I’m going to be when I get to the Dining Room, put on an apron and start serving.

5 Responses to “Happiness, health and aging”

  1. Colleen on January 22, 2014 9:00 pm

    Curiosity about the study led me to click on the link, but I did not find what I was looking for. Specifically, whether the researchers did baseline sampling and how they teased apart the hedonic well-being from the eudaimonic well-being (self-reports being so subjective). Admittedly, my scan of the methods section was very quick so I might have missed the answers to my questions. But even without answers, I still like the conclusion…it makes me happy, too. Now does that make our happiness hedonistic or eudaimonic? (or should that be eudaimonistic?)

  2. Lauren Kessler on January 23, 2014 2:52 am

    You’re going to have to read the study itself to get those answers, Colleen, you hedonist, you. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Google Scholar will get you there…Dr. Steve Cole is the first author.)

  3. MikeWon on January 23, 2014 2:35 am

    Wow! Go figger!

  4. Colleen on January 23, 2014 4:20 pm

    Hi again, Lauren. I did go to the original publication. Guess I’ll have to go back and re-read. But the first read made me think there was no baseline blood draw, and no comparison over time beyond the self-report of feelings during the past week. However, even without any of that, I am glad this is a topic of research because other studies have shown a rehearsal effect – if you behave positively, you soon start to feel positively. Harkening back to UO’s own Peter Lewinsohn’s Pleasant Events Schedule here, and how study after study showed the effects on depression of forcing yourself to do something pleasant. Even if we start off with hedonistic motives for positive behavior, I am guessing we can move to a more eudaimonic effect, and in the meantime someone else is benefiting from your positive actions. Okay, enough philosophizing here, got to go get more coffee (hey, Dr. Oz says it’s a health food!).

  5. Val Stilwell, MSCS on January 23, 2014 7:30 pm

    Altruism is my religion.

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