Selfish Jerks Are Genetically Predisposed to Cancer, Heart Disease

Happiness has long been linked to healthiness, but according to a new study, our genes can tell the difference between the kind of happiness derived from giving back to the community and the kind derived from being Charles Montgomery Burns—and they reward or punish us accordingly.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and UCLA found that our genes have an innate "heightened moral sense," and can attack us when we put ourselves before others. For the study, 80 people were given a questionnaire asking why they're satisfied with their lives and what makes them happy. Then their blood was drawn and the white blood cells were analyzed.

Scientists have long surmised that moods affect health. But the underlying cellular mechanisms were murky until they began looking at gene-expression profiles inside white blood cells. Gene expression is the complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins. These proteins jump-start other processes, which in the case of white blood cells control much of the body’s immune response.

It turned out that different forms of happiness were associated with quite different gene-expression profiles.

The test subjects who admitted that they derive their happiness through self-serving or hedonistic endeavors had unhealthy profiles, featuring high levels of biological markers "known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body"—the kind of inflammation that's linked to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. They also had low levels of markers that produce antibodies that fight off infections.

Conversely, people whose happiness was derived from being of service or having a greater purpose had low levels of inflammatory markers and high levels of antibody production markers.

The authors of the study said this is an "evolutionary strategy" of weeding out the assholes (in so many words).

Image via negative productions/Shutterstock

Looking to Genes for the Secret to Happiness [NYT]