Vital Sunday: Meditation and Happiness Change Your Cells’ DNA

Bradley Arthur shares this news from the Atlantic showing how meditation and happiness can affect your DNA.

“The old thinking was that our bodies were stable biological entities, fundamentally separate from the external world,” he says. “But the new thinking is that there is much more permeability and fluidity.”

His latest project is the examination of happiness in biological terms. “There’s an intrinsic connection between our direct experience of happiness and the perception of that experience in our bodies, as represented by changes in our biologic mechanisms. We’ve found that happiness can remodel our cellular composition,” he explains. Specifically, Cole and his team of researchers at UCLA have found that happiness seems to alter the function of immune cells. “It’s no question that the mind and immune system are intrinsically linked,” he says. “Our body is a literal product of our environment.”

As he explains, the immune system has two primary functions: to fight infection and to cause inflammation. The first function, known as the antiviral response, is generally considered positive because it helps ward off external threats, like viruses, that might otherwise harm the body. The second function, known as the inflammatory response, is less positive because its efforts to keep healthy immune cells circulating in the body can also cause tissue damage.

Cole has found that the balance of these two functions of the immune system may change based on life experiences. His work has shown that negative experiences like a new cancer diagnosis, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and low socioeconomic status may cause changes to someone’s immunologic profile. “Over the past 15 years, our work has shown us that diverse social and psychological experiences that cause a sense of threat or uncertainty can evoke a similar response in our immune cells,” he says.

Listening to him explain his work is part philosophy lesson, part cellular-biology lesson, a scientific discourse on la dolce vita. “We’re beginning to understand that life experiences like chronic stress, loneliness, and social isolation negatively affect our immunologic profile. This gives us a sense of how not to live—but more importantly, it also tells us something about how to live, because there are concrete things we can do to actively promote a positive change in our immunology,” he says. “The biology of happiness is in our hands.”

But how exactly do our immune cells register this abstract concept of happiness? The answer depends on how “happiness” is defined.

“There are two distinct forms of happiness, hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness, and our bodies respond differently to each type,” Cole explains. “Hedonic happiness is the elevated mood we experience after an external life event, like buying a new home,” while eudaimonic happiness “is our sense of purpose and direction in life, our involvement in something bigger than ourselves.” Of the two, eudaimonic happiness in particular is associated with a better-functioning immune system, according to Cole.

To determine this effect, Cole and a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asked 80 healthy adults to fill out questionnaires about their well-being. The researchers then analyzed the volunteers’ answers to assess their levels of eudaimonic and hedonic happiness, and took blood samples to study the functioning of their immune cells. They found that a high score of eudaimonic happiness, more than a high score of hedonic happiness, was correlated with a better genetic expression profile, meaning the immune cells showed high rates of the antiviral response and low rates of the inflammatory response. The researchers posited that though both types of happiness may look similar on the outside, the corresponding genetic expression profiles are quite different. “When we asked people how happy they felt, both [the high eudaimonic and high hedonic] groups seemed about the same,”Cole says.  “But when we looked at the cellular and molecular level, it looks like people with high levels of eudaimonic happiness are better off, immunologically speaking.”

“We already know ways to achieve hedonic happiness, but how can we live our lives to evoke a eudaimonic experience in our immune system?” he continues.

One way is through mind-body practices, like meditation, which “have been shown to cultivate positive and happy immune cells,” he says. Research has linked meditation to reduced negative inflammatory activity, increased positive antiviral response, improved function of specific strains of immune cells, and higher antibody production.

But perhaps the most striking theory posed of meditation is that it could alter genetic material.

In recent years, a new field of study, known as mind-body genomics, has emerged. Among the most well-known researchers in this area are Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleague, psychiatrist Elissa Epel. Through a series of studies, the two found that meditation could affect the ends of DNA known as the telomeres, which act as protective caps for genes. The longer the telomere, the greater the protection conferred for the DNA strand, and the longer that cell can survive.

And telomeres, like immune cells, seem to respond to emotional cues.  Negative external conditions like chronic stress that reduce eudaimonic happiness may shorten telomere length, while stress-reducing activities like meditation may help to maintain it.  “Telomeres are affected by many things, but they are directly affected by stress. So we can see how improvements in our mental health, through the practice of meditation, might be linked to improvements in our telomeres,” Epel explains. “They offer us a window and some insight into how we are living, and help us appreciate how what we do today can affect our health tomorrow.”

As the field of mind-body genomics matures, the focus is moving towards gaining a better understanding of not only how DNA could be structurally changed by meditation, but also whether meditation can alter DNA functionally, through changes in how genes are expressed.  In one recent study, for example, meditation was linked to enhanced expression of genes associated with insulin secretion, telomere structure, and cellular energy and function, and decreased expression of genes linked to inflammation and stress. What’s more, blood samples collected during the study found that experienced meditators showed changes in their genetic activity after just one meditation session.

With 21,000 genes in the human genome, Cole, Epel, and other researchers have just scratched the surface of the connection between our emotional and biological selves. “We are an ever-changing conglomeration of cells very much influenced by our experience of the world around us,” Cole says. “At the rate we’re going, we have more data than we can make sense of. It’s this process that helps us get closer to understanding the black box. Who knows? Maybe in the future we may be able to sequence our own genes.” Epel agrees: “We don’t yet have the technology to monitor our telomeres, but it’s coming.”

In the meantime, though, the lessons of mind-body genomics still apply. “The experience you have today will influence your body composition for the next 80 days, because that’s how long most cellular processes hang around,” Cole says. “So plan your day accordingly.”