The Theology of the Body tells us that each person was made for self donation and that if we want to be happy, we need to make a gift of ourselves. It further tells us that when we treat others, or ourselves, as objects of pleasure, we break down spiritually and emotionally because we are acting in a manner that is inconsistent with God’s plan and our design. This sounds like a lovely theological speculation, but what if it was physiologically true as well?
This week, researchers at UCLA demonstrated that the type of happiness you pursue in life effect your overall well-being on a genetic level. That is not to say that the level of happiness you experience is genetic, but rather the kinds of happiness you seek in life actually effect you on a genetic level.
Researchers discovered that people who, as a matter of habit, chase after ”hedonic happiness” (the pleasure that comes from partying, sex, overeating, drinking, etc.) show physical evidence of gene expression that resulted in higher inflammatory response and the lower production of anti-viral and antibodies in their immune cells. This response is similar to the physiological response of depressed or exhausted individuals.
By contrast, people who pursue, as a matter of habit, “eudaimonic happiness” (happiness that comes from pursuing the greater good) show physical evidence of gene expression that resulted in less inflammation and a stronger immune response (i.e., higher production of antiviral and antibodies in their immune cells). This particular pattern of gene expression is associated with better physical well-being and overall good health.
The truly surprising thing was that both groups claimed to feel good. Both groups claimed to be happy and well, but only the people who habitually pursued the greater good experienced the good health – all the way down to the genetic level – that ought to accompany their happiness.
In the words of the researchers…
And while those with eudaimonic well-being showed favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells and those with hedonic well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile, “people with high levels of hedonic well-being didn’t feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being,” Cole said. “Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive. What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion,” he said. “Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”
St Thomas Aquinas talked about the “two books” that reveal truth; the “books” of nature and revelation. Something that is true in one “book” cannot be contradicted by the other. Faith and reason should go together. That’s why I’m so excited when I can point to studies that show the clear link between these two sources of truth. Pope John Paul II proposed the Theology of the Body as a vision for how we are to live, but living according to that vision is only good if it can be shown to help us achieve our potential as human persons–as he claims it should. Research like this demonstrates that JPII’s claims hold up not just to theological debate, but scientific investigation as well. The Theology of the Body is not just theological speculation. It’s assertions, particularly the idea that we can only discover God’s plan for our lives and true happiness by making a generous gift of ourselves and living in mutually self-donative relationships, are true on every level, including–as you might expect for a theology of the body–the physical level.
To learn more about how you can increase the happiness in your life, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling Service (740-266-6461). You can work with a faithful, professional, Catholic counselor to help you experience more joy in your marriage, family, or personal life.
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