Our Genes Reward Self-Sacrificing Behavior

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Research suggests our genes don't work as effectively to protect us from disease when we derive our happiness from consuming things.

Our genes don’t like when we’re selfish.

At least, that’s what new research seems to suggest. Happiness that comes mainly from consuming things is associated with poorer immune response than happiness from helping others, and that’s partly because of how our genes respond to our sense of well-being, The New York Times says.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, surveyed 80 healthy volunteers about their happiness and took blood samples from them, the Times says. They analyzed the volunteers’ white blood cells to see what kind of gene expression — a “complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins” that in this case control immune response — each person had.

What they found is that people whose happiness comes mainly from consuming things, or hedonic happiness, had less healthy gene expression profiles that were associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, those who derive happiness mainly from a sense of purpose and helping others, what is called eudaemonic happiness, showed higher levels of antibody-producing gene expression.

It’s not a one-or-the-other situation. “Different kinds of happiness can coexist; every volunteer in the study displayed elements of both hedonic and eudaemonic well-being,” the Times writes. But the findings, published in the academic journal PNAS, suggest putting others first more often could have health benefits.

Stacy Johnson

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