How happiness is expressed in your genes

Did you know that different types of happiness can actually influence us on a cellular level, reflecting happiness in our genes and impacting our physical health?

A recent study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first of its kind to study the effects of positive psychology on gene expression.

Researchers found that people with a sense of hedonic well-being -- the type of happiness associated with unmitigated self-gratification, typical in celebrities, rock stars and partiers -- didn't have the same healthy genes as those with long-term eudaimonic well-being -- the type of happiness associated with helping others and a deep sense of purpose and meaning.

While both groups had similar levels of positive emotions, their genes responded quite differently.

Also see: Surprising difference between men and women's happiness

“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,” lead researcher Barbara L. Fredrickson tells The Canadian. “But we have had less information on the biological bases for these relationships.”

The researchers assessed 80 healthy adults for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, and then drew blood from the participants while mapping the varying biological effects of either hedonic or eudaimonic well-being on their genes.

They discovered that people who had high levels of eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of inflamed gene expression and exhibited greater antiviral and antibody genes. In short, their genes were better equipped to fight off disease.

The opposite was true for people who had high levels of hedonic well-being, with higher levels of inflamed gene expression and low levels of antiviral and antibody genes.

Also see: Can happiness trigger overeating?

“Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,” explains Fredrickson of the hedonic group. “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.”

Co-researcher Steven Cole has been studying how human genes reacts to negative psychology, including stress, misery and fear, for the last 10 years.

"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," he says. "Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds."

What are your thoughts on how different types of happiness can affect your genes and physical health? Have you noticed a connection?