This article appeared in the August 25, 2013 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Our genes may have a more elevated moral sense than our minds do, according to a new study of the genetic effects of happiness. They can, it seems, reward us with healthy gene activity when we’re unselfish — and chastise us, at a microscopic level, when we put our own needs and desires first.
To reach that slightly unsettling conclusion, researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, had 80 healthy volunteers complete an online questionnaire that asked why they felt satisfied with their lives. Then the researchers drew their blood and analyzed their white blood cells.
Scientists have long surmised that moods affect health. But the underlying cellular mechanisms were murky until they began looking at gene-expression profiles inside white blood cells. Gene expression is the complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins. These proteins jump-start other processes, which in the case of white blood cells control much of the body’s immune response.
It turned out that different forms of happiness were associated with quite different gene-expression profiles. Specifically, those volunteers whose happiness, according to their questionnaires, was primarily hedonic, to use the scientific term, or based on consuming things, had surprisingly unhealthy profiles, with relatively high levels of biological markers known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body. Such inflammation has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also had relatively low levels of other markers that increase antibody production, to better fight off infections.
The volunteers whose happiness was more eudaemonic, or based on a sense of higher purpose and service to others — a small minority of the overall group — had profiles that displayed augmented levels of antibody-producing gene expression and lower levels of the pro-inflammatory expression.
What this finding indicates, says Steven W. Cole, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. and senior author of the study, published last month in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that “our genes can tell the difference” between a purpose-driven life and a shallower one even when our conscious minds cannot. Of course, genes cannot actually perceive or judge our behavior, so the shift in gene expression is very likely driven by an evolutionary strategy of working for the common good.
At an individual level, this finding may strike some as hectoring, particularly for those whose stuff really does make them happy. But as Cole points out, different kinds of happiness can coexist; every volunteer in the study displayed elements of both hedonic and eudaemonic well-being. Some simply had more of one or the other.
And, he adds, purpose is an elastic concept, not necessarily requiring renunciation but only that “you think first of someone else” or “have a goal greater” than your immediate gratification. Being a parent, participating in the creative arts or even taking up exercise so that you can live to see your grandchildren may ease you toward eudaemonia, he says. It may even be that this will enable your genes to respond more favorably to how you’re conducting your life.
A version of this article appears in print on 08/25/2013, on page MM24 of the NewYork edition with the headline: they know when you’ve been bad or good.