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