Image via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a pretty well-worn axiom that doing good for others can make you feel good. But doing good for yourself also makes you feel good, right? That’s not necessarily true, at least on a cellular level, according to a new collaborative study in social genomics from researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and UCLA.
The study suggests that happiness derived from self-gratification can have not-so-great effects on the body, whereas happiness derived from a greater sense of purpose correlates to positive biological benefits. So dropping a lot of cash on that new gadget might have felt awesome at the time, but your body would be better off on a genomic level if you donated that money to charity.
While there were no accredited experts in philosophy on the research team, the report’s hypothesis and results have a profoundly philosophical edge to them. According to Steven W. Cole of UCLA, one of the researchers on the project, “we are at a unique moment of technical and intellectual contact” between the realms of biological research and philosophy.
At the outset, the researchers explain that they divide happiness into two categories: hedonic and eudaimonic. The former, as you might have guessed, is more about self-indulgence whereas the latter indicates a certain “striving toward meaning and a noble purpose.”
With their ideological foundational laid, all the team needed was a lens through which to examine the genomic consequences of this binary.
Cole provided that lens. His previous work had looked at the effects of chronic stress on gene expression. He identified what he called the “conserved transcriptional response to adversity,” or CTRA. What CTRA signifies is that when human beings are stressed out, the genes expressed by our bodies are negatively affected. In fact, according to UNC News, “the functional genomic fingerprint of chronic stress sets us up for illness” by amplifying expression of genes associated with inflammation.
Undoubtedly, CTRA is just one of many thousands of available heuristics to examine this topic. Even the researchers recognize its limitations, as it doesn’t provide a “direct measure of immune system functional activity so the health significance of these gene expression dynamics remains to be determined.” But it does provide an interesting glimpse at how our bodies respond so differently, and sometimes negatively, to what we usually think of as a uniquely positive emotion.
There are three facets to the CTRA profile. The first is an intensification of inflammatory gene expression. The second and third are a weakening of expression among genes responsible for antiviral responses and antibody synthesis, respectively.
An 80-person sample was obtained. In general, average levels of hedonic well-being outweighed average levels of its eudaimonic counterpart. That’s not shocking–it’s a lot easier to make yourself happy through self-gratification than to go out and do something for a more noble purpose. The results show that CTRA profile expression was significantly decreased in scenarios of eudaimonic happiness, meaning better health benefits, while the opposite was true for hedonic happiness.
The most fascinating aspect about Cole and his colleague’s conclusions is that different paths to happiness might feel the same emotionally to us, but can have disparate affects on our genome. Partying with friends and volunteering at the local animal shelter both result in emotional highs and corresponding retreats from depressive tendencies, but our biology distinguishes between the two kinds of pleasure with different gene expressions.
Of this result, Cole says, “It's almost as if our genes know more about our state of moral philosophy than do our conscious minds. It’s like the genome is Santa Claus–he knows if you’ve been good or bad, even if we ourselves might be missing the picture a little.”
So basically, do good for others and you’ll be doing good for yourself. It’s quite literally written into your genetics.