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Happiness is in the genes of the beholder

It’s a grey miserable Friday the 13th, so what better time to think about happiness! james2 copy

The always cheerful (no matter what the weather!) Dr James Sleigh explains how recent research suggests that happiness and health are actually linked on a biological level…

How often do you feel happy?

How often do you feel that you have contributed something to society? How often do you feel that you belong to a community group?

CharlotteWell, the answers to those questions now appear to affect more than just your mental and social well-being. New research suggests that your level of long-term happiness and self-satisfaction also has a significant effect on your genes.

A team of scientists in the US decided to study how positive psychology impacts gene expression levels in humans.

centraldogma copyGenes are short sections of your DNA that are copied to produce intermediate molecules called RNA, which can then be used as templates to create proteins, the fundamental components of all cells. When we talk about gene expression levels, we are describing how many intermediate ‘RNA’ copies are made from a particular gene.

When a gene or sets of genes are expressed at different levels to what is expected or normally observed in a particular group of people, this can sometimes indicate that something is perhaps not quite right.

Jo and familyv1In the study, the researchers took blood samples from 80 healthy people and looked at the expression of all the genes in the human body.

They also asked the volunteers a range of questions about their psychological well-being in order to determine whether their happiness was more due to having a deep sense of purpose in life, or perhaps more due to instant self-gratification, for example through going on regular holidays or getting to eat your favourite food.

sam and stuThe study found that those people who believed that they had a greater meaning in life had low expression of genes involved in unwanted inflammation and high expression of genes linked to a healthy immune system.

The opposite was true of the group of people whose happiness was mainly a product of immediate self-satisfaction.

These differences can have a major impact on general health because having high expression of inflammatory genes is linked to cardiovascular and other diseases, while having low expression of immune system genes can affect your ability to fight off infection.

Kel and Scotty

Interestingly, both groups had similar positive feelings about their lives, indicating that the subtle differences in happiness have a greater effect on the genome, and therefore your health, than they do on the conscious adult mind.

So the moral of the story is that doing good by others and trying to live a meaningful life is perhaps better for your long-term health than making yourself feel happy in the short term.

Reference: A functional genomic perspective on human well-being (2013) PNAS

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