Helping people makes you happy and it might also make you live longer.
Psychological health shows a strong correlation with good physical health and is a powerful predictor of future physical well-being. Conversely, long-term depression and other negative mental states correlate with an increased disease incidence, including Parkinson’s and heart disease, cancer, and strokes. The biological basis for negative psychological states adversely affecting human health are partially understood and include factors such as increased inflammation, immune system suppression, and depression-related poor lifestyle choices, such as overeating, alcohol abuse, and smoking.
The biological correlates of psychological well-being and good health are less well understood. Recently molecular biologic techniques have been employed to analyze psychological well-being and interestingly these techniques distinguish between different forms of happiness at the molecular-biologic level.
Since the time of Ancient Greece, philosophers have distinguished two forms of human well-being; the hedonic and eudaimonic. Early formulations of hedonic happiness are attributed to Aristippus of Cyrene and Epicurus, while Eudaimonic happiness is articulated in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In hedonism, happiness is achieved by maximizing pleasure, while minimizing pain. “Ethical hedonists” seek to maximize pleasure while avoiding infringements on the rights or happiness of others.
Eudemonia, sometimes defined as “human flourishing”, consists of happiness achieved by purposeful, rational, ethical action, that strives towards meaning and a noble purpose, and is more than achieving “pleasure, wealth, or honor1” In more recent definitions, hedonism is thought to fulfill basic physiologic and psychologic drives, while eudaemonism fulfills more complex social and cultural desires2,3.
Recently, “genome-wide transcriptional profiling” was used to analyze the expression of ~21,000 genes in 80 healthy individuals, who were selected by psychiatric testing (the “Short Flourishing Scale”) to separate individuals with hedonic vs. eudaimonic happiness3. In this technique, all the genes transcribed into different RNA species (each RNA species corresponds to one of the ~21,000 genes), were identified and their relative levels of expression were quantified. Since many of these RNA species are transcribed into proteins that exert different functions in human cells, this molecular technique gives information about the specific gene and protein expression patterns seen in different individuals. The cells used in the analysis were circulating white blood cells – a cell type often analyzed in molecular psychiatric studies.
Psychological studies of both hedonic and eudaimonic individuals revealed that both groups had good psychological health and low levels of depression, with the hedonic group showing a higher level of psychological health. Both groups reported good overall psychological well-being and factors such as age, gender, and race/ethnicity had no effect on reported or measured well-being.
Interestingly, molecular analysis of hedonic and eudaimonic individuals revealed quite different gene expression patterns. Individuals with high hedonic happiness showed increased pro-inflammatory gene expression and decreased expression of genes associated with antibody synthesis and cellular interferon responses. The gene expression pattern seen in eudemonic individuals showed the opposite pattern – suppressed pro-inflammatory and increased immune function associated gene expression. Further analysis revealed that the cells of hedonic individuals showed increased activity of proteins that increase pro-inflammatory gene expression (called “transcription factors” [NF-kappa B and AP-1]) and decreased activity of transcription factors that regulate immune function (STAT and IRF). Eudemonic individuals showed the opposite transcription factor activity pattern.
Thus, the two types of happiness “set off” different intracellular signaling pathways that result in vastly different cellular gene expression patterns3.
This study is one of the first detailed molecular analyses of human happiness and surprisingly demonstrates molecular differences between forms of happiness defined by philosophers more than 2,400 years ago. It shows that the human genome is more sensitive to the specific “form” of happiness an individual experiences, than the individual’s own consciousness.
Furthermore, the study implies that hedonic and eudaimonic happiness may have different long-term health effects, as pro-inflammatory gene expression combined with immune suppression correlates with an increased risk for many chronic diseases. Thus, happiness based on a sense of connectedness and purpose (eudaimonia) may promote better health than happiness based on hedonism3.
While this research is in its early stages, it might be used in the future in the diagnosis and possible treatment of depression and anhedonic states. The data could also be useful should the human race ever decide to alter gene expression within the human brain to promote greater happiness and better health.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, chapter four, paragraph one.
- Philos Trans R Soc Lond Biol Sci. 2004;359:1333-47.
- Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013;110:13684-89.