For the last 10 years, Steven Cole, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of medicine and a member of the UCLA Cousins Center, and colleagues, including first author Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, examined how the human genome responds to stress, misery, fear and all kinds of negative psychology.
The researchers examined the biological implications of both hedonic, pleasure seeking happiness, and eudaimonic happiness, contentment from a life of purpose and meaning, through the lens of the human genome -- a system of some 21,000 genes that has evolved fundamentally to help humans survive and be well.
The researchers drew blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, as well as potentially confounding negative psychological and behavioral factors. The team used the CTRA gene-expression profile to map the potentially distinct biological effects of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.
While those with eudaimonic well-being showed favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells and those with hedonic well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile, "people with high levels of hedonic well-being didn't feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being," Cole said.
"Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive."
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said 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," Cole said.