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“Meaningfulness” genes study torn apart by critic in journal article

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From Reuters:

A high-profile 2013 study that concluded that different kinds of happiness are associated with dramatically different patterns of gene activity is fatally flawed, according to an analysis published on Monday which tore into its target with language rarely seen in science journals.

The new paper, published like the first in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, slams the research for “dubious analyses” and “erroneous methodology” and says it “conjured nonexistent effects out of thin air.”

In the 2013 study, researchers had adults answer a 14-item questionnaire meant to sort them into two groups: interested in hedonic well-being (fun and selfish pleasure) or eudaimonic well-being (leading a meaningful life).

The two groups, researchers led by psychologist Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina reported, had different patterns of activity in 53 genes. Hedonists had DNA activity akin to people suffering from chronic, illness-inducing stress. Stress-related genes including those involved in inflammation were overactive; genes involved in making antibodies that fight infection were underactive.

Hedonists, it seemed, were headed for a disease-ridden existence and an early grave, as media reports warned in stories with headlines like “Meaning is healthier than happiness.”

Then a critic spotted it…

By the way, who said humans are intended to be happy in this world or always find their life meaningful? The notion would have shocked our ancestors, who thought that unhappiness with this world and a sense of the futility of much human effort was a necessary norm for personal development.

Not misery, you understand, just a persistent recognition that something is wrong, something is missing, things will always go wrong if humans are involved, and a lot of what we do won’t come to much for reasons we cannot foresee. And in a few decades we will be forgotten.

It used to be called wisdom. Its outcome should be peace of mind and charity toward others in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Neither they nor we are to blame for the nature of reality, so we should not take it out on them or ourselves.

Note: It is generally true, as Susan Blackmore belatedly discovered, that religious people are healthier and happier, but that is more likely due to their finding it comparatively easy to just accept life as it is.  There may be epigenetic outcomes, but that is for further research.

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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

5 Replies to ““Meaningfulness” genes study torn apart by critic in journal article

  1. 1
    Dionisio says:

    About time someone started outing the nonsense instead of peddling it.

    🙂

  2. 2
    Axel says:

    Your concluding paragraph on the nature of wisdom seems inspired to me, Denyse: expressed with stunningly eloquent simplicity. I don’t normally pay much attention to style, but it seems perfectly condign and attuned to its import. This is just an aside, so don’t feel courtesy-bound to reply.

  3. 3
    Axel says:

    I should have said, ‘three concluding sentences’ (or ‘paragraphs’)…

  4. 4
    anthropic says:

    Sorry, but I do think we are built for meaning. That doesn’t mean success, at least, not as the world defines success. But unless we are connected to something greater than ourselves, we are unhappy at a deeper level than mere displeasure.

    I’ve worked 19 years to turn around the school where I work, and ultimately my efforts failed. When I focus on the institution, I feel depressed. But God reminds me of the students I’ve been privileged to help, many of whom have let me know how much that has meant to them as they struggle to keep their faith despite relentless assault at college.

    If we were animals, we’d be content to have our appetites sated. But we’re not. The desire for significance and purpose is every bit as important to us as food and drink. Or, as Jesus put it, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

  5. 5
    DavidD says:

    I saw a post written by a blog writer PLOS James Coyne [probably another Hedonist like the other Coyne] who wrote this in response to the reply from Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson to their PLOS article

    http://blogs.plos.org/mindtheb.....-pleasure/

    I’m sure Hedonists everywhere are gulping a sigh of relief. Well probably not. How dare anyone say that charity, the doing of good to others and giving of ourselves has lasting positive benefits. We like the world as it is, therefore we demand you back off and refrain from denigrating our twisted view of it. We like things the way they are.

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