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The Benefits of Unselfish Living: Science Catches Up With Ancient Wisdom

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Most of us know that helping others has its rewards, but now scientists have been able to measure the cellular effect of altruism, and results confirm that contributing to others may do more for your health than simply satisfying your own needs. The study appeared in PNAS (2013; 110 [33], 13684-89).

“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasure, but those ’empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physially,” said lead study author, Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Love 2.0 (Hudson Street 2013), in a UNC press release. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”

The field of human social genomics is an emerging area of science that studies the influence of social-environmental factors, such as how we feel subjectively or how we perceive our situation (see Clinical Psychological Science 2013; 1 [3], 331-48). The new field challenges the prior scientific belief that our genetic makeup is fixed and unchanging.

In this study, investigators were interested in more fully understanding the biological basis of two different types of human well-being—“hedonic” and “eudaimonic”—and how they might affect physical health and longevity. Hedonic well-being is derived from self-gratification, or satisfying one’s own desire for pleasurable experience. Eudaimonic well-being results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.

Fredrickson and colleagues measured the effects of each type of well-being on gene expression within immune cells among a group of 80 adults from the UNC community. The scientists measured each subject’s CTRA (“conserved transcriptional response to adversity”) gene-expression profile and compared the results with his or her level of hedonic or eudaimonic well-being (as assessed by the indi- vidual). The authors explained that a negative CTRA shift is “characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation . . . and decreased expression of genes involved in . . . antiviral response.”

Data analysis showed that in the gene expression of people who characterized their well-being as predominantly eudaimonic, the CTRA profile showed fewer proinflammatory genes and more genes responsible for a stronger immune response. The opposite was true for those categorized as primarily hedonic. Fredrickson said, “Daily activities [of people who are more hedonic] provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term.”

Study authors noted that “the finding that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being engage distinct gene regulatory programs despite their similar effects on total well-being and depressive symptoms implies that the human genome may be more sensitive to qualitative variations in well-being than are our conscious affective experiences.” Frederickson pointed out to IDEA Fitness Journal, “These two forms of well-being often go hand in hand. That is, hedonic well-being doesn’t appear to be unhealthy for all, but rather only for those in whom it is not derived from, or balanced by, a sense of eudaimonic well-being.”

The research highlights the power of the mind-body connection. “Well-being is not just a mental phenomenon. It appears to be equally a cellular phenomenon,” added Fredrickson. “The same study team is testing the causal benefits, at the cellular levels, of people’s efforts to raise their well-being.”

Watch for more research to deepen our understanding of how our values and perceptions impact long-term health.


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Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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