A sense of purpose could be important for your health

This intriguing new PNAS study by Barbara Frederickson and colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill and UCLA begins with a brief lesson on Greek philosophy: “Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of wellbeing: a “hedonic” form representing the sum of an individual’s positive affective experiences, and a deeper “eudaimonic” form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification.”

This interesting tidbit is followed by a quick lesson on gene expression associated with immune function: “Previous studies have found that circulating immune cells show a systematic shift in basal gene expression profiles during extended periods of stress, threat, or uncertainty. This conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA) is characterized by increased expression of genes involved in inflammation (e.g., proinflammatory cytokines such as IL1B, IL6, IL8, and TNF) and decreased expression of genes involved in type I IFN antiviral responses (e.g., IFI-, OAS-, and MX- family genes) and IgG1 antibody synthesis (e.g., IGJ).”

So, it turns out that – at least in this initial study sample (predominantly white Americans) – one type of wellbeing is associated with increased expression of the ‘good’ genes and decreased expression of the ‘bad’ ones, and one is associated with the exact opposite profile. Guess which is which? Predictably, it’s the eudaemonic form of wellbeing that’s associated with the healthier pattern of gene expression. Seems the Puritans had the right idea…

Do you have a sense of purpose right now? No…? Time to take a closer look at what you’re doing. Is it that you’re not getting much accomplished at work, and/or that you don’t think your work is important? Write out your short- and long-term goals, and review both regularly. If you’re not sure that your research matters in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably a good idea to have a “big picture” discussion with your advisor. It’s hard to stay positive about grad school if you think that your work is inconsequential. And on top of that, hedonism without eudaemonia might be bad for your immune health.

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About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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