Looking to Genes for the Secret to Happiness

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California Los Angeles, studied 80 healthy participants to find out if our bodies reward us with healthy gene activity when we are unselfish or chastises us when we are selfish and put our own needs first. It sounds like something we might teach little kids: make good choices and you will be rewarded with happiness. Turns out…it’s true!

Finding the genetic keys to happiness can help us to better understand depression and addiction and their treatment at a drug treatment center. The first thing we need to understand is that gene expression is the complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins. These proteins jump start other processes in the body. For example, white blood cells control much of the body’s immune response. Different forms of happiness are associated with different gene expression profiles.

The participants completed an online survey and then researchers drew blood and analyzed it. The volunteers whose happiness centered around consuming things had more unhealthy profiles. They had high levels of bio markers known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation is linked to developing cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also had low levels of markers to fight off infection. Volunteers whose happiness centered around service and higher purpose had high levels of antibody-producing gene expression and lower levels of inflammation expression.

What this finding indicates, says Steven W. Cole, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. and senior author of the study, published last month in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that “our genes can tell the difference” between a purpose-driven life and a shallower one even when our conscious minds cannot. Of course, genes cannot actually perceive or judge our behavior, so the shift in gene expression is very likely driven by an evolutionary strategy of working for the common good.

In terms of addiction recovery and depression treatment, one of the areas on which we have addicts work is finding their purpose – what drives and motivates them to connection and better health. Having a goal greater than immediate gratification, such as exercise to live longer to be with grandchildren and other loved ones, may ease a person more toward a life a service and the possible reward from a happier mind and healthier body.