This is some of the most amazing research I have seen in a long time.  A group out of California and North Carolina has shown that behavior can actually change the expression of inflammatory genes.  People who had high levels of happiness derived from having a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life – also known as eudaimonic – also showed a very favorable immune system profile at the genetic level.  People whose happiness was derived more from self gratification, also known as hedonic happiness, showed a much more unfavorable profile.

The eudaimonic, or “noble purpose” group actually had decreased the expression of genes responsible for producing the proinflammatory cytokines such as IL1B, IL6,IL8, and TNF, and had increased the expression of genes responsible for killing viruses and bacteria, such as type I IFN antiviral responses and IgG1 antibody synthesis .  The hedonic group showed the opposite profile.

What does this mean for you?  It shows that attitudes and behavior can affect your immune system at the DNA level by changing the actual expression of genes . This is known asepigenetics .

Please note that the activities that constitute eudaimonic happiness are not yet well defined. Eudaimonic does not mean becoming Mother Theresa.  Rather the authors note that “an important topic for future research will be to define which specific sources of well-being are most generative of eudaimonia and health (e.g., social pleasures such as connecting with others, cognitive pleasures such as taking in new ideas, spiritual pleasures such as connecting to something larger than the self, or creative pleasures such as generating new knowledge or works of art)”. 

I wonder if someday I will write evidence based prescriptions for chronic inflammatory response syndrome that include cholestyramine and a recommendation to spend some time reconnecting with those things that are most important to your having a sense of meaning a purpose in your life. In the meantime I see no harm in getting a head start on the science while waiting for the evidence to accrue.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Aug 13;110(33):13684-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1305419110. Epub 2013 Jul 29.
A functional genomic perspective on human well-being.

Fredrickson BLGrewen KMCoffey KAAlgoe SBFirestine AMArevalo JMMa JCole SW.