UNC researcher: Not all happiness is equally healthy

dblustein@newsobserver.com August 2, 2013 

Scientists have shown before that being happy can improve your health, even reducing risks from heart disease and stroke. But it turns out not all kinds of happiness are created equal.

A study published this week by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and UCLA showed that a “hedonic” or self-gratifying type of happiness – the result of a massage or a tasty meal – made cells in the immune system act like they were under stress, a condition that over time could lead to diseases such as cancer or heart attacks.

But happiness stemming from finding purpose in life or helping others – such as volunteering at a soup kitchen – caused the opposite response.

Both types of happiness feel good, said Barb Fredrickson, a psychology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and the primary author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the two types of well-being have very different effects on the immune system.

“Somewhere at the genomic level, our bodies seem to be more sensitive to different ways of being happy than even our conscious minds,” said Steven Cole, a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and a coauthor of the study.

The stress response resulting from self-gratification increased the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and decreased those responsible for producing antibodies that target foreign objects in the body. Under certain circumstances, such as a bacterial infection, these changes are part of a healthy immune response, but over the long-term they could lead to disease.

The body’s response to hedonic well-being was similar to – but not as strong as – what happens in the face of adversity, such as poverty or a terminally-ill spouse. Fredrickson thinks this may be the immune system’s way to anticipate impending threats.

“Your immune system doesn’t have eyes and ears,” she said: “But it does respond to emotions.”

Gearing up the immune system

With different emotions, our immune systems are bathed in a different stew of chemicals, she said. Those chemicals tell the body something about what types of threats, such as bacteria or viruses, to watch out for.

And these responses likely evolved to help humans survive in different situations. The strong community support and personal relationships associated with the more altruistic happiness could create an environment where viruses proliferate. The immune system under this condition may anticipate a viral threat passed from person to person by increasing the production of antibodies that identify disease-causing intruders in the body.

But with hedonic well-being, the body may perceive independence and anticipate isolation or conflict. An increased inflammatory response could result to help ward off wounds infected with bacteria.

Since both types of happiness contribute to each other, many more questions remain to be studied, Fredrickson said.

“Most people are happy in both ways,” she said. And the secret to long-term good health may depend on keeping the two in balance.

Fredrickson hopes to find out how we can improve our health through deliberate action. She’s currently researching the effect of different types of meditation on the stress response of our immune systems.

Her current work suggests that we may be wise to pay attention to finding happiness outside of ourselves. Fredrickson says she has found her own purpose in writing books. She conducts meaningful scientific research and conveys her findings to a broad audience.

“This is my way to make a positive contribution to society,” she said. “And it makes me feel good, too.”

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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