Stress can take a serious toll on human health, making the pursuit of happiness seem all the more imperative. But recent research suggests that the benefits of stress reduction depend on the type of happiness people seek.
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
— Proverbs 17:22
Job demands, family concerns, poor health, the economy—everyday experience is full of things that stress us out. Many people simply learn to live with this unpleasant reality, but while a little pressure now and then isn’t a bad thing, scientific research testifies to the deleterious physical effects of chronic stress.
The impact of stress on health can be mapped to changes at the genetic level. Stress can slow the healing of wounds and impair the immune system, making infections and disease more dangerous.1 The brain translates stress into changes in the hormonal signals that initiate the activation of signaling pathways in individual cells. These altered signals lead to changes in gene expression where genes are turned on or off and levels of expression are modulated.
Stress is signaled by the hormone cortisol. In T cells, the immune system’s ninjas (i.e., surveillance and threat-neutralization team), cortisol turns on genes associated with inflammation while turning off those that involve anti-viral and antibody production.2 T cells in people experiencing chronic adversity (or stress) show a particular profile of gene expression called a “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” (CTRA).3 It is thought that CTRA contributes to the poorer health experienced by those suffering chronic stress.
So, what can we do to combat the physical dangers of stress? Some have suggested that stress can be kept at bay by the pursuit of happiness—yet, new research puts an important qualifier on this idea.4 The type of happiness a person pursues dictates whether they are at more or less risk for poor health.
In this study, a group of researchers characterized the well-being of 80 subjects. Specifically, the researchers were looking at two forms of well-being: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic represents well-being derived from pain avoidance and pleasure seeking and shares the same root as hedonism. Eudaimonic well-being results from “striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.”5
To characterize the subjects, the researchers used the short flourishing scale. This metric asked the subjects to think about the previous week and then answer how often they felt:
- that their life had a sense of direction or meaning to it?
- that they have experiences that challenge them to become a better person?
- that they had something to contribute to society?
The first two questions score hedonic well-being and the last three indicate eudaimonic well-being. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, there was a high correlation between eudaimonic and hedonic well-being (r=0.79). Further, both types of well-being showed an inverse correlation with depression symptoms.
Yet although all the subjects experienced similar feelings of happiness (e.g., level of conscious affect), their immune responses differed significantly depending on the type of well-being that characterized them. Eudaimonic well-being was associated with reduced CTRA expression while hedonic well-being demonstrated increased CTRA expression.
Upon digging more deeply, the researchers found that hedonic well-being was associated with increases in pro-inflammatory gene expression and decreases in antibody synthesis gene expression. Conversely, eudaimonic well-being showed significant decreases in pro-inflammatory gene expression. These results suggest that those pursuing meaning had a lower risk for diseases associated with inflammation such as cancer. Hedonic well-being biochemically strikingly mirrors the experience of bereavement, social isolation, or diagnosis with a life-threatening illness.
The indication is that people who find hedonic well-being but do not experience eudaimonic well-being develop the same health risks as those with depression and stress. The researchers concluded that “striving predominately toward meaning eudaimonic well-being] may have more favorable effects on health than striving predominately toward positive affect per se.” In other words, happiness derived from meaningful activities—many of which involve serving others rather than just ourselves—produces greater benefits than simply seeking pleasurable experiences. These conclusions recall to my mind a quote from C. S. Lewis:
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with, and in the end, despair.
Often times I hear agnostics reflect that they see no evidence for a personal and transcendent God. It begs the question, “What would you expect if there were a personal, transcendent God?” Would you expect this God to build compassion into our very beings and physiology? Would you expect that He would transcend our world to offer us guidance on how to live? Would you expect that He would instruct His followers to act so as to promote life for others?
The Bible has long prescribed how we are to live our lives, this includes the proper care of the bodies He gave us. While these prescriptions for wise living may seem restrictive, this recent study highlights how wise living brings true life. As ambassadors for Christ, believers have been commissioned with the important mission of reaching others with the good news of hope and life in Christ. While the emphasis of the church’s outreach efforts may vary with the community needs, this study highlights that spiritual and physical care are intimately intertwined. God has placed eternity in our hearts, wired us to seek meaning, and fills us with life as we seek and follow Christ.
- George M. Slavich and Steven W. Cole, “The Emerging Field of Human Social Genomics,” Clinical Psychological Science 1, (July 2013): 331–48.
- Steven W. Cole et al., “Transcript Origin Analysis Identifies Antigen-Presenting Cells as Primary Targets of Socially Regulated Gene Expression in Leukocytes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (February 15, 2011): 3080–85.
- Barbara L. Fredrickson et al., “A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 110 (August 13, 2013): 13684–89.
By Katie Galloway
Dr. Katie Galloway earned a PhD in chemical engineering with a minor in biology from Caltech in 2012. In the summer of 2013 she served as an adjunct research scholar at RTB before beginning postdoctoral studies in neurobiology and regenerative medicine at USC.