Rethinking the science of happiness

Do you want to be happy? I know I do…

I’m sure you’re all too familiar with the short term effects of pleasurable activities such as drinking alcohol, having sex or eating delicious food but would you like to know how things that make you happy can also keep you healthy? How can science help us live a happy life that is sustainable and fulfilling and keeps us healthy at the same time?

image sourced via Flickr

To understand this we need to look a little more closely at the mind/body connection.

 

We have known for decades that portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow where your blood cells are born. What has been discovered more recently is that immune cells can make, and have receptors for neurotransmitters suggesting that there is crosstalk between neurons and your immune cells themselves.

 

Just Imagine how powerful your immune system can be, now we know it has direct links to the brain.

Well, studies in the field of psychoneuroimmunology – that is, the link between your brain and your immune system – have long suspected that negative mental states such as stress and loneliness can heavily influence immune responses by driving changes in gene expression and thus shaping the bodies ability to fight disease.

 

This link became clearer when it was found in a 2007 study by Steve Cole that lonely people had upregulated genes involved in the inflammatory response, whereas many of their downregulated genes had antiviral roles. In sociable people, the reverse was true and their antiviral gene expression was increased and inflammatory genes were down These results make evolutionary sense because early humans in close social groups would have faced increased risk of viral infections, but by contrast, people who were isolated and under stress faced greater risk of injuries that could cause bacterial infection — and so they would need to respond by ramping up genes associated with inflammation, to help heal wounds and fight off those infections.

 

More recently Professors Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson have teamed up, moving from studying negative moods into the tricky concept of happiness.

In their study looking at what happens to gene expression in immune cells when people are happy – questions were designed to distinguish between the two forms of happiness recognised by psychologists:

  •             hedonic well-being (characterized by material or bodily pleasures such as eating well or having sex) and
  •             eudaimonic well-being (deeper satisfaction from activities with a greater meaning or purpose, such as intellectual pursuits, social relationships or charity work).

 

They found that two types of happiness influenced gene expression in different ways. People with a meaning-based or purpose-based outlook had favourable gene-expression profiles, whereas hedonic well-being showed gene expression similar to those seen in individuals facing adversity. One interpretation is that eudaimonic well-being benefits immune function directly. But realistically this can be explained in terms of response to stress. If someone is driven purely by hollow consumption then all of their happiness depends on their personal circumstances. If they run into adversity, they may become very stressed. Where as Eudaimonia, or caring about things greater than onesself, may help to buffer a sense of threat or uncertainty and limit stress responses potentially improving our health.

Hopefully In the future, as these links become clearer thanks to studies linking state of mind to immune function, the path to happiness may be one of health as well as wealth and wine.

So remember, its ok to enjoy the sweet things in life, but don’t forget to spend your time and energy on more long term rewarding pursuits as well – your mind and body will thank you for it in the long run!