What’s in it for us?

In this day and age when we hear about selfish genes and winner-takes-all outcomes in evolution, it is refreshing to come across a scientific paper that redeems your faith in doing the right thing. In this case, there is strong support that being a giving person may let you potentially have a longer lifespan (1).

This research focused on hedonic behavior. There are two forms of hedonism. One is the classical desire for pleasures that are simply self-gratification. The other is called eudaimonic hedonism that comes from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose in life. Classical hedonism is deeply embedded in our genes. That’s why we eat to stay alive and have sex to propagate the species. That’s also why it is also highly related to fame and wealth so that you can get more food and sex. On the other hand, eudaimonic hedonism appears to motivate us toward more complex social and cultural activities that go beyond our individual lifespans.

One of the reasons why stress reduction is so important in living a good life is that there are a number of genes that seem to be up regulated in response to extended periods of stress and uncertainties. In particular, these are pro-inflammatory genes. This is known as the conserved transcriptional response to adversity or CTRA.

What this study did was to take healthy people and through a series of questions determine the balance of the two types of hedonism. Not surprisingly, nearly 80% of the subjects had higher levels of self-gratification (what’s in it for me) compared to those who had higher levels of eudaimonic hedonism (what’s in it for us). Then the researchers looked at the levels of activity of the genes that comprise the CRTA cluster of genes. Those who fell in the self-gratification group had higher levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression (as well as decreased expression of the genes required for immunity) compared to the subjects who were in the group that had a higher level of eudaimonic hedonism. These changes in gene expression should translate into a longer and healthier life. There is some indication that this may be true (2,3).

Conversely, it is known that increased inflammation reduces hedonic well being (4,5). This would explain why high-dose omega-3 fatty acids rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) seem to have such clinical benefits in treating depression (6-8).

So if you want to live a longer (and probably better) life, then try to start thinking of others beside yourself. If that is too hard, then consider taking high-dose fish oil rich in EPA. You will be happier, probably have a longer and healthier life, and may even become nicer to your fellow man.

References

  • 1. Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JMG, Ma J, and Cole SW. “A functional genomic perspective on human well-being.” Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 110: 13684-13689 (2013)
  • 2. Hummer RA, Rogers RG, Nam CB, and Ellison CG. “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality.” Demography 36:273-285 (1999)
  • 3. Helm HM, Hays JC, Flint EP, Koenig HG, and Blazer DG. “Does private religious activity prolong survival? A six-year follow-up study of 3,851 older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 55: M400-405 (2000)
  • 4. Dantzer R, O’Connor JC, Freund GG, Johnson RW, and Kelley KW. “From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain.” Nat Rev Neurosci 9:46-49 (2008)
  • 5. Eisenberger NI, Berkman ET, Inagaki TK, Rameson LT, Mashal NM, and Irwin MR. “Inflammation-induced ahedonia.” Bio Psychiatry 68:748-754 (2010)
  • 6. Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, Rueter S, Zboyan HA, Diamond E, Cress KK, and Marangell LB. “Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 56:407-412 (1999)
  • 7. Nemets H, Nemets B, Apter A, Bracha Z and Belmaker RH. “Omega-3 treatment of childhood depression: a controlled, double-blind pilot study.” Am J Psychiatry 2006 163:1098-1100 (2006)
  • 8. Martins JG. “EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled” trials. J Am Coll Nutr 28: 525-542 (2009)