Research suggests that experiencing the right kind of happiness can change our genetic code that defines the core of our very being.
Studies indicate that our bodies recognize – at the molecular level – that not all happiness is created equal – It then responds in ways that can either help or hinder our physical health.
There are two types of happiness:
Hedonic happiness, is the type we get from pleasure of the senses, such as going on vacation, having a good meal, enjoying a hobby, sport or other types of personal indulgences.
Eudaimonic happiness, is a contented state of being type of happiness that we get from a noble goal that brings us pleasure or a sense of accomplishment. This can be working to relieve the suffering of another creature or fellow human, spiritual pursuits, or searching for and finding a greater purpose in our lives, working for the greater good.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the pattern of gene expression within the cells responsible for fighting off infectious diseases and defending the body against foreign materials (Fredrickson et al., 2013). In this study, eighty (80) healthy adults were assessed for “hedonic” and “eudaimonic” well-being.
The hedonic or simple pleasures in life do make us feel happy but they don’t have a positive impact our genes.
Researchers found that the sense of well-being derived from a noble purpose may provide cellular health benefits, whereas simple self-gratification of the senses may have negative effects, despite an overall perceived sense of happiness.
According to Barbara L. Fredrickson, it’s the difference between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project. Both give us a sense of happiness, but each is experienced very differently in the body’s 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 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. Not so, found the researchers…. “Eudaimonic well-being was, indeed, associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. Doing good, produces a stronger expression of antibody and antiviral genes.”
Their genomics-based analyses reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being. Simply “feeling good” types of happiness had weaker expression of antibody and antiviral genes.
Fredrickson found the results initially surprising, because study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being. “Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term."
“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 said. “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.”
Steven Cole, one of the authors of the study explained:
“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. Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are our conscious minds.”
Interesting how Science backs up the spiritual gems that were recorded centuries before the sciences. If only all mankind would have listened, our world would be different today. Thankfully, there are currently billions of people on our planet that are focused on the greater good. It is my belief/hope that some day everyone on this planet will be focusing on and doing - what is in the greater good of all.
In the meantime, we can all start and end our day by doing good for our fellowman.
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.