2013 study on happiness and gene expression flawed, new research shows

August 26, 2014 by Marcia Malory report
Credit: Bill Kuffrey/public domain

(Medical Xpress)—In 2013, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that people who pursue happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by searching for meaning, experience changes in gene expression similar to those experienced by people suffering from chronic stress. Nicholas Brown of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counseling in London and his colleagues reviewed the study and found it flawed. Their critique also appears in PNAS.

According to the earlier study, led by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hedonists, people who seek through pleasure, show changes in patterns of activity in 53 genes. People suffering from illness-inducing also experience the same changes in . On the other hand, eudaimnonists, people who seek happiness through meaning, do not experience these epigenetic changes. News of the study spread throughout the media, with major news outlets reporting that seeking pleasure rather than meaning in life could make you physically ill.

Brown and his team questioned the validity of the study and examined it closely. They noted that the sample consisted of just 80 white American adults. The materials used to generate the results consisted of just one questionnaire on well-being, reliant on self-reporting and not originally designed to measure eudaimonism or hedonism, and one biological sample, taken one time only, from each participant. The researchers pointed out that well-being can be a permanent state or a temporary one, with eudaimonic well-being more likely to be permanent and hedonistic well-being more likely to be temporary. If well-being changes over time, a gene sample taken after the state of well-being has changed might not be relevant.

Other problems with the earlier study included the use of an inventory of minor health problems over the prior two weeks to control for the possible effects of ongoing infections or associated with the immune response and the use of previous work by one of the coauthors to choose the 53 , out of a possible 20,000, to examine.

Brown's team found yet more problems with the study's statistical analysis. People who scored high on questions supposed to identify hedonists also scored high on items supposed to identify eudaimonists. When the team created random groupings of questions, to divide the subjects into two meaningless categories, they were able to identify characteristic patterns in gene activity for each category.

The researchers state that, because of its remarkable, unsubstantiated claims and its appeal to the popular media, the previous study was irresponsible.

Explore further: Human cells respond in healthy, unhealthy ways to different kinds of happiness

More information: A critical reanalysis of the relationship between genomics and well-being, Nicholas J. L. Brown, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1407057111

Abstract
Fredrickson et al. [Fredrickson BL, et al. (2013) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110(33):13684–13689] claimed to have observed significant differences in gene expression related to hedonic and eudaimonic dimensions of well-being. Having closely examined both their claims and their data, we draw substantially different conclusions. After identifying some important conceptual and methodological flaws in their argument, we report the results of a series of reanalyses of their dataset. We first applied a variety of exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis techniques to their self-reported well-being data. A number of plausible factor solutions emerged, but none of these corresponded to Fredrickson et al.'s claimed hedonic and eudaimonic dimensions. We next examined the regression analyses that purportedly yielded distinct differential profiles of gene expression associated with the two well-being dimensions. Using the best-fitting two-factor solution that we identified, we obtained effects almost twice as large as those found by Fredrickson et al. using their questionable hedonic and eudaimonic factors. Next, we conducted regression analyses for all possible two-factor solutions of the psychometric data; we found that 69.2% of these gave statistically significant results for both factors, whereas only 0.25% would be expected to do so if the regression process was really able to identify independent differential gene expression effects. Finally, we replaced Fredrickson et al.'s psychometric data with random numbers and continued to find very large numbers of apparently statistically significant effects. We conclude that Fredrickson et al.'s widely publicized claims about the effects of different dimensions of well-being on health-related gene expression are merely artifacts of dubious analyses and erroneous methodology.

Related Stories

Human cells respond in healthy, unhealthy ways to different kinds of happiness

July 29, 2013
Human bodies recognize at the molecular level that not all happiness is created equal, responding in ways that can help or hinder physical health, according to new research led by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished ...

Don't worry, be happy

May 8, 2013
To most of the Western world, happiness is the number one goal, and a happy life is seen as a good life. But is it as simple as that?

Teens who gain pleasure from helping others could be less prone to depression, research shows

April 22, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Happiness derived from tasks that help others, like raising money for a charity, could be better for teen mental health than happiness derived from selfish activities, like eating chocolate or listening ...

Study shows changing sleeping patterns can alter gene expression cycles

January 21, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. have found that drastically altered sleep schedules (such as switching to working a night shift) can dramatically impact gene expression rhythm. In their ...

Happiness in schizophrenia: Research suggests mental illness doesn't preclude enjoying life

August 18, 2014
Schizophrenia is among the most severe forms of mental illness, yet some people with the disease are as happy as those in good physical and mental health according to a study led by researchers at the University of California, ...

Research finds gene that predicts happiness in women

August 28, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—A new study has found a gene that appears to make women happy, but it doesn't work for men. The finding may help explain why women are often happier than men, the research team said.

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RichManJoe
not rated yet Aug 26, 2014
It may be correct, or it may not be, but irresponsible? I think what is irresponsible is the criticism, which should form a foundation for a more thorough study, without doing that study.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.