Our Genes Respond Positively to The Right Kind of Happiness

Post image for Our Genes Respond Positively to The Right Kind of Happiness
The right kind of happiness doesn’t just feel great, it also benefits the body, right down to its instructional code.

New research suggests the right kind of happiness can change the code that defines our very being: our genes.

The 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).

The 80 participants in the study also reported their levels of two different types of happiness:

  1. Feeling good or hedonic happiness: the kind you get from straightforward self-gratification, like having a good meal, or buying yourself a new car.
  2. Doing good or eudemonic happiness: the kind you get from working towards a noble goal and searching for meaning in life.

Stronger expression of antibody genes

What the researchers found was that people experiencing different mixtures of both types of happiness felt equally happy. For conscious experience, neither type of happiness beat the other.

A difference emerged, though, at the genetic level. In those with higher levels of ‘doing good’ happiness, there was a stronger expression of antibody and antiviral genes.

In contrast, people with higher levels of feeling good happiness had weaker expression of antibody and antiviral genes.

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 conscious minds.”

So, while doing good and feeling good both make us feel happy, it’s doing good that benefits us at the genetic level.

The lead author, Professor Barbara L. Fredrickson, suggests that:

“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. 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.”

Image credit: Dennis Holzberg

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 15 September 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License