Researchers at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about how human cells respond in healthy and unhealthy ways to different kinds of “happiness”.
Scientists believe the biological basis for this is genetic. Have you ever heard of those studies that show how if you are under chronic stress, you are more likely to experience decreased physical and mental health? Under stress, the expression of genes that protect you from inflammation and viruses are affected so that your body is less able to fight them, and in turn you are more susceptible to ills such as arthritis, heart disease, and infections.
In other words, chronic stress makes you more at risk for illness.
These researchers found the same to be true for “hedonic” pleasure. Hedonic pleasure is pleasure that is instantly gratuitous, for example, over-eating, sex on demand, obsessive spending, partying…you get the idea, a self-centered life of instant gratification (me, me, me and I want, I want, I want). Hedonistic pleasure is the pleasure of the senses.
It appears that a hedonistic lifestyle puts you at risk the same way chronic stress does. Your cells respond badly, and you are more susceptible to disease.
Yet they found that “eudaimonic” pleasure goes the opposite direction. What is eudaimonic [u-DY-moh-nick] pleasure? It’s a deeper form of pleasure beyond the senses. According to the lead researcher, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of psychology, it’s the pleasure that “results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” for example, “feeling connected to a larger community through a service project.”
They say “eudaimonic pleasure”, but you could also say “Christian virtue”.
For at least 200 years Christianity has warned against modernist philosophies that put the focus on individual sentiment and personal experience, philosophies that shake the foundations of societies, such as, materialism, pragmatism, subjectivism, relativism, and hedonism.
These philosophies put too much emphasis on personal pleasure and less emphasis on serving your fellow citizens and the common good.
Christ taught that the goal of the Christian life is to grow in virtue, to love God with all your heart and to love others as yourself. This has been the teaching of Christianity for over 2,000 years, and it was the teaching of Judaism before that. See the Ten Commandments.
God told us to pursue virtue because God created us in His image and made us for communion. The practice of virtue is how we achieve communion with each other and with the Trinitarian God who is perfect charity and community.
Are our cells even telling us that we are made for communion, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves? It appears so. Following Jesus can cause your cells to respond in healthy ways.
Remember Christ’s teaching?
Master, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and thy whole soul and thy whole mind. This is the greatest of the commandments, and the first. And the second, its like, is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments, all the law and the prophets depend.” Matthew 22:36-40
That must include physical law as well. It just makes sense that virtuous living would be healthier, but it’s fun to see scientific validation at the cellular level.
Image: The Exhortation to the Apostles, James Tissot (1836–1902)
EDIT: The title is a light-hearted twist on the title at ScienceDaily, Human Cells Respond in Healthy, Unhealthy Ways to Different Kinds of Happiness. It is not to be taken as literal. Another way to say it is that the data indicates that hedonistic pleasure has the same affect on certain genes as stress does, likely making a person more susceptible to certain diseases.