By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer
Would you believe me if I told you that our genes have a moral code? You know, being able to tell the difference between “good” and “bad” choices. According to the University of North Carolina and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), they do! Not only that, but they can reward us for doing the right thing and punish us for doing wrong.
I thought genes were just the DNA blueprints we get from our parents that tell our body how to grow! How the heck do they know when we’re being naughty or nice? Well, they don’t actually stop and think “hey, you just did something mean, I’m going to punish you,” but according to the researchers, our actions can affect the way our genes interact.
The study involved asking 80 participants to fill out a survey about how satisfied they were with life. Some of the participants said “hedonic” activities were the most pleasing. Ummm… hedon-what? Hedonism is the act of doing things that please you, no matter the cost to others or your long-term happiness. Typically, the feeling is a selfish, animal-like pleasure that’s the result of behaviors ranging from stuffing your face with chocolate to stealing a toy from someone just because you want it right now.
Other participants said acting altruistically, or doing good things for other people, made them happy. When someone is truly altruistic, they don’t expect any pleasure for themselves, and may find satisfaction in knowing they made someone else happy.
After all the subjects filled out surveys, the researchers took a sample of their blood and tested the white blood cells – which are responsible for fighting disease and infection. I warn you now, what you are about to read might be the most surprising information you’ll ever learn in your life!
It turns out that hedonism and altruism had very different effects on the way genes created proteins! Well, I know muscles are made out of proteins, but does this mean that they had different sized bodies? Nah, because proteins perform a wide variety of functions in your body that go way beyond just building muscles. According to the data, the hedonic participants had an altered gene expression, meaning that their protein-building process was all messed up. In fact, their bodies were more vulnerable to illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease! Meanwhile, the altruistic patients showed strong potential resistance to sickness and infection, while having lower chances for the negative conditions.
Steven W. Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA and senior author of the study, said the results are evidence that “our genes can tell the difference” between living a selfish life and living a shallow one, even if our minds can’t.
Does this mean that we should all just give away everything we have to help others? Not quite. As Cole mentioned, all the participants had both types of happiness, the difference was that one was more present than the other. It may mean, however, that we need to find a good balance between the two in order to keep ourselves healthy!
Images courtesy of Sean McGrath on Flickr.