Purpose, Connectedness, Genetics and Immunity

Autumn 2016, Living Well Magazine

On a cellular level our immune system appears to respond better to the kind of wellbeing that is based on a sense of connectedness and purpose. 

The sense of wellbeing we gain from undertaking different activities – think eating a meal versus doing voluntary work – can feel quite similar in our bodies, but in fact the results can have quite opposing effects on our immune system.

It seems that while we superficially might not recognise the different effects of these activities, on a molecular level, our body’s do, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So what pursuits can we undertake to ensure on a molecular level we’re doing the things that cause reactions that are anti-inflammatory and anti-viral, as opposed to something less healthy?

“Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of wellbeing: a ‘hedonic’ form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic’ form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” wrote the researchers, who were from UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina.

The researchers looked at the biological influence of hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing through the human genome. They were interested in the pattern of gene expression within people’s immune cells. They looked for associations between hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, and symptoms of depression and expression of ‘conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA)’.

In essence, CTRA expression is associated with suppressed immune function and is considered bad. However, CTRA expression is also associated with an inflammatory response that may help with immediate healing. Thus, in response to short-term stress CTRA expression may be a good thing. But chronic expression will eventually suppress immune function, which is considered a bad thing.

In the study, the researchers drew blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing, 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 wellbeing.

People who had high levels of eudaimonic wellbeing showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

Conversely, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic wellbeing showed the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

The researchers found the results initially surprising, because study participants themselves reported overall feelings of wellbeing.

One possibility, they suggested, is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic wellbeing consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories – short-term happiness resulting in negative physical consequences long-term.

It seems at the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to the kind of wellbeing that is based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.

References:

Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jul 29. [Epub ahead of print]