The Epigenetics of Human Happiness

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2024 June 10, 2015 no comments

The Epigenetics of Human Happiness

If one looks at all the behaviours and actions of human beings, regardless of sex or culture, then you may rightly say that at the end of the day, all their actions come down to one of two categories. We either are consciously or unconsciously driven to find and maintain our happiness, or we are seeking to avoid and stay away from suffering or unhappiness.

If one looks at how we collectively go about achieving these aims we find that our chosen paths often create the basis for suffering and not happiness. Happiness is sometimes described as en embodied feeling which arises based on your values, emotions, expectations and beliefs. The effect is to promote a state of feeling good in the moment about yourself and those with you in that moment.

A recent study found that people generally fall into two categories of values and then the behaviours and actions that arise from those two categories. One group is intrinsic in its value system and values autonomy, competency, belonging, and meaning as that which made them happy. The second group were those who were extrinsic in their value system and were focussed on high income, high wealth, high status, and acquiring assets and power.

The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota USA, has long researched happiness. It conducted research on people from both value systems and concluded that extrinsic value driven people could buy pleasurable goods and experiences but yet were not themselves often happy. Those people with intrinsic value systems had a stable and abiding sense of happiness that was not connected to wealth or extrinsic attainments beyond a certain level of survival and needs driven satiation.

The Mayo Clinic found that once a person achieved all their survival needs as well as basic external environmental needs then their sense of happiness and well-being was not likely to increase with a higher standard of living. In a larger annual U.S. General Social Survey that interviewed a 1.3 million population sample, and which had gathered statistics since 1972, it found that there was a gender difference in those with stronger extrinsic value systems.

Basically it found that extrinsically driven women becoming increasingly less happy as they age whilst the opposite was true for men, with a crossover point of the age of 47 being when such men start to become increasingly happy than their women counterparts. The commentary on this long term study showed that women as a whole had also become increasingly unhappy since 1972 despite having noted that they were more independent and extrinsically enriched than in 1972. This fact was explained that stress and the responsibility of managing a lifestyle tied to extrinsic values had robbed women and men of much of the anticipated gain of extrinsic achievement.

The increasing unhappiness in extrinsically motivated women as they age was put down to their own sense of declining extrinsic value as they aged and how they noticed how others did not notice them or compliment them as much as before. They noted that the wider society valued youth and beauty which they felt personally was diminishing and this replaced happiness with dissatisfaction as time went on.

Some women chose to stall time by cosmetic surgery and augmentation of their face and bodies, whilst others gave up trying and withdrew more from society, whilst others collapsed into Depression and addictions. Few chose to change their extrinsic bias towards a reframing of life with more intrinsic values.

Men with extrinsic value systems however reported a struggle from young adulthood that became easier over time as they started to achieve some of the extrinsic goals and lifestyles. They often made intrinsic value sacrifices in achieving their goals, and the main concern that they noted were health issues and fitness issues that came from such lifestyles.

These men were still not “happy” more so than they were positive about achieving their goals long term and identified with work, stress and discipline as drivers in their life. Some of these men had found that their expectations were initially unrealistic and had modified their value system to include a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic values in a less driven lifestyle.

Repeated studies around happiness have found that one’s expectations, values, beliefs and relationships are the key determinants of how successful a person will be in finding happiness in their lives. In addition a person who has found meaning, purpose and a passion in life will also create the basis for the attainment of happiness.  This normally means that person having developed a personal code of ethics and values that guides the choices of actions and experiences that one undertakes in life.

The choices we make each day are reinforcing those bodymind habits that create happiness and wellness, or illness and suffering. The way we perceive our environment and ourself as part of our environment then controls our health and fate through our Epigenetic processes.

When we live from negative limiting beliefs we actually create the Epigenetic basis for our cells to create stress based variants of our genes. These variants are now being linked long term to many of the modern day epidemics in society such as cancers, diabetes, obesity, immune system disorders to name a few.

However if we were to change our beliefs, conclusions, and ideas about ourselves and life for the better then again we influence our Epigenetic mechanisms to produce gene variants that foster and sustain wellness. We also switch off the basis for any disease which was generated and being sustained by the same Epigenetic mechanisms when they were responding from the negative stressed stimulus.

We also reinforce this positive wellness trend by adopting actions and experiences which create feelings of happiness. We can choose a pleasurable experience like taking a holiday as part of what can create the conditions to feel happiness, but pleasure does not guarantee a resulting happiness. It can in fact lead to further suffering.

Critically it is our expectations about ourself, others, and the choices and experiences that we make, which we can directly work with and shape to create happiness. Some people set unrealistic expectations about themself, others and life. The fantasy of perfection is perhaps the worst as it is by its nature unobtainable, yet it’s the most common mental distortion I find people buy into.

Our youth, beauty and perfection based society sets up many of us to run on this treadmill of disappointment and self hatred. No-one is perfect by the standards of our superficial, narcissistic society yet without an internal set of ethics and values many people look outside themselves for a value system to define themselves against. What society promotes in this way is destructive and anti-life.

We need to understand that happiness exists in a panorama of other feelings, moods and states of being which are of themselves a reflection of the ever changing world. Society promotes a false reality that people should be happy all the time and medicated if that is not happening for you. We each need to have valid expectations about life that along the way we will face loss of parents and loved ones, betrayal, losing, errors of judgement, grief, anger, rage, relationship failure, accidents and illness.

What happiness becomes is a baseline state that one leaves from time to time as we face life issues, or other feelings, moods and states arise in us. When we experience these and let them pass we return to our baseline state of happiness that is stable and abiding. Having such wisdom and expectations about life will allow you to be a vibrant human being who energetically flows through a spectrum of emotions.

The key fault of chasing happiness as somehow being “out there” leads to a frantic, anxious but useless chase of an illusion that will not lead to any stable or abiding happiness. Such an approach will create both a demand on others, objects or experiences that they make us happy. They either do not achieve this at all, or only in unstable ways, and they eventually cease, die, or leave us, creating abandonment and suffering.

The second key aspect of happiness that we can directly engage with is finding our passion in life and engaging with it in a way that brings happiness. This often manifests in two ways. Firstly a person creates a hobby or recreational interest in what is “in flow” in their life, and which becomes an effortless, stress less, curious place of fun, learning and growth. Secondly a person learns to harness this “flow” from this pursuit and turn it into their “work” or way of making a living in the world.

The best way of finding your passion or “flow” is just living life and sampling different experiences across a wide spectrum of opportunity. One day you will find that in one of these moments you will notice a state of effortless knowing in which your body, mind and spirit are alert, curious, activated, in present moment time, and are motivated to excellence. This Zen-like moment of clarity is quite profound and timeless for those who experience it. We can all experience this.

Happiness arises naturally when “in flow” as the mind is free of distracting thoughts, and one is present in the moment to what is going on, so the neurotic fantasies of past wounds and future fears cannot arise in this state. The key is it will normally happen to you when you are not noticing it. You may find all the bodymind factors just showing up as you cook, garden, renovate, paint, play sport, or collect stamps. When it happens notice how you are happy and words like excitement, fun, exhilaration, enthused, energised and alert start to define your reality.

If you find and act on your sense of passion, flow or purpose, you will find happiness from having chased your dream. If one considers work life then studies show that unhappiness at work is one of the 3 most common sources of powerlessness and unhappiness in people. The act of changing that aspect of your life and turn it towards your passion and purpose can dispel a major depressor or stressor from your life, and replace it with a powerful source of inspiration and happiness.

If you cannot as yet find your “flow” then start with small steps. Studies show that by introducing random acts of kindness and compassion towards others we undermine the roots of our own depression and misery, and create the foundation of true happiness. Not everyone is able or supposed to make a huge life change to find their happiness. We can however all start with small everyday steps of humanity, kindness and acts of giving and goodwill towards others. Giving costs little as it can be a gesture of time rather than an object or gift.

A related aspect of this approach to your life is the act of forgiveness and letting go of old hurts. Studies show that age old grudges and anger hurt only the person holding on to that energy. If you can come to completion and peace with whatever occurred, and see the other person as suffering from their own ignorance or abuse in what they did to you, the letting go can definitely shape your reality towards happiness.

The holding on to anger blocks the arising of positive emotions. The Epigenetic effect is to keep a person in the “fight or flight” state of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and to create Epigenetic cellular changes to position one for survival via stress hormone release. The physical results include inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, lowered immune system function, and recurrent illness and infections.

For instance our adrenal gland produces the stress hormone called cortisol which can be detected in a blood test and is used to determine when a person is highly stressed. Cortisol is a stress response output from the adrenal gland but cortisol has the same chemical precursors as DHEA, a common body hormone associated with many vital health functions such as cell repair, organ maintenance and longevity of a person.

Our adrenal gland functions in a basic either/or way when producing either of these two variant hormones. If we live a stressed lifestyle we increase cortisol production and decrease DHEA production accordingly. This is one of the reasons why stressed people are often seen to age quickly as the low levels of DHEA contributes to both illness and premature ageing. A mind of forgiveness can help switch the either/or choice to the pro-life DHEA choice.

If you cannot forgive then see a therapist who works directly with emotional release of states of anger and rage. By psycho-dynamically working through the issue and “having your protest” you can bring yourself to completion with such emotional based issues, and then Epigenetically move into wellness. Your ANS will return to its natural Parasympathetic or “happiness” mode over time by working through your issues from childhood, or from adult dynamics such as relationships or some betrayal or trauma.

At the end of the day happiness is both possible and a choice that we each must make for ourselves. If we chose to be victims to our lives then we disempower ourself and give our power to whatever person, object, experience or dynamic we blame for why we are not or cannot be happy. Choose another set of expectations about yourself and about life, and watch your happiness return over time.

In the timeless words of Buddhist leader and monk Thich Nat Hanh, “as we cultivate happiness in ourselves, we also nourish happiness in those we love”. Put another way by Pope John Paul 2, “see everything, overlook a great deal, and improve a little”. We do have choice but if were to believe some sections of the media, science and medicine, then we would succumb to being victims to our inherited biology, our past events, traumas and mistakes in this life.

Many people hold a belief system that one cannot really change, and so use this excuse to not look further than one’s own current condition and state in life. We now are coming into full awareness of just how much we are either conscious or unconscious participants and creators in our own evolution via our own body-mind linked processes of Epigenetics.

The new science of Epigenetics relates to how at the very heart of every cell in our body, we have mechanisms by which environmental stimulus interacts with our genome and controls genetic activity. The critical stimulus or mechanism in all this is our perception and therefore our state of mind or state of happiness with our reality. We get to choose happiness or unhappiness even when we do not get to choose our external conditions or people we associate or work with.

The inherent Epigenetic mechanisms allow our basic inherited genes to be modified when copied or transcribed so that up to 30,000 variations from a single inherited gene sequence may be produced. The old science of our hardwired genes producing exact copies of themselves as a fixed fate are wrong or discredited facts. We are not victims to our inheritance at all.

We are in fact responsible for the type of stimulus which our cells take on, make sense of, and react to with a response via using a variation of a basic gene to help us adapt to our perceived reality. This can take us in either a healthy or an unhealthy direction in terms of our wellness, and it is also occurring in every moment and influenced from both our conscious and unconscious mind signals into our body.

Remember that our conscious mind will power is very limited and operates at about 5 – 10% of our brain power. This is not the place from which to change our realities nor old bad habits of mind as attempted by many self-help books and Transformation gurus of our age. The pre-frontal cortex of the waking conscious mind requires us to keep a constant vigil on our thoughts and habits from this approach, lest we become momentarily unconscious and expose our minds to the 90 – 95% power of the subconscious mind.

This is in fact what happens to us all the time and creates the basis for our unconscious negative or limiting beliefs to quietly emerge and takeover our waking reality. We do not even feel or see this happening until is running us, and that may have been occurring for anywhere from a few seconds to an hour. This sabotages any attempt to use the will to impose lasting change on oneself. Most people using these approaches eventually give up and feel worse, or simply delude themself that they have changed.

Neuroscience call this way of being the “top-down” process of mind where our waking mind runs our reality from conscious momentarily but then can be interrupted at any time by the “bottom-up” process of mind stemming from the old and unconscious reptilian and limbic parts of our brain. These two “old brains” hold all our implicit and procedural memories and beliefs which are simply pushed into the consciousness space from time to time.

The real basis from change must be from the source of the negative or limiting reality and so this means we must be able to get into the unconscious “old brains” and change their content, for we cannot change the process whereby its content regularly “refreshes” our conscious pre-frontal cortex brain processes. Likewise Cognitive Behavioural Techniques (CBT) are not proven to be effective in accessing the older and deeper states of these other two brains, which have emotional and bodily linked interactions.

The subconscious mind is like a pre-programmed computer full of scripts that we picked up along the way as we lived life to the point of where we are today. It does not possess thinking of a creative, logical, deductive or decision making rationale like the conscious mind. Some genetic based instinctual responses live here, some neuro-chemical and nervous system mediates responses live here, and learnt experiences and beliefs from our nurture or past all live here.

They all respond to either environmental stimulus taken in from our environment, or alerts or stimulus from other parts of the brain, or imagination/visualisation from the mental centre of mind. They all have a bodily mediated pathway, and all react with a stored behavioural response as no thinking is required. They are all “software” or “plastic” in that all are open to change if approached in the right way.

The important consideration here is the way we perceive our environment and ourself as part of our environment then controls our health and fate. When we live from negative limiting beliefs we actually create the basis for our cells to create stress based variants of our genes. These variants are now being linked long term to many of the modern day epidemics in society such as cancers, diabetes, obesity, immune system disorders to name a few. The unconscious mind plays a large part in mediating that perception of reality and propagating any negative limiting beliefs we hold.

However if we were to change our beliefs, conclusions, and ideas about ourselves and life for the better then again we influence our Epigenetic mechanisms to produce gene variants that foster and sustain wellness. We also switch off the basis for any disease which was generated and being sustained by the same Epigenetic mechanisms when they were responding from the negative stressed stimulus.

Basic medicine has shown that when our mind perceives that our environment is safe and supportive, our cells are preoccupied with the growth and maintenance of the body. In stressful situations the cells forego their normal growth functions and adopt a defensive “protection” stance where the cells produce defensive proteins, neurotransmitters, and substances.

When this occurs as an event we soon resume normal function with limited negative effect. When we learn or adopt a reality that this is how life is as a victim, then we create the basis for ongoing production of such defensive posture cellular output in the body. This simply leads to disease and illness over time, and can become the habitual pattern of a person over time who swaps wellness for a neutral state of “absence of illness”. Many people now wrongly equate an absence of disease or illness as a healthy state of wellness.  This is a false and compromised view of bodymind health. Wellness is far more than a state of absence from disease.

A person can change their mind and their perceptions of themselves and life, and so in turn make a life change where they start to overcome what may be a life lived thus far with compromised health. When we change our perception of reality and the associated beliefs attached to that reality we start sending totally different messages to our cells and accordingly reprogram their output or expression.

A Somatic psychotherapy such as Integrative Body Mind Psychotherapy is well placed to facilitate such change. Studies have shown that being able to take a person from their “fight or flight” or Sympathetic state of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), into their equivalent Parasympathetic state or relaxed wellness, is a key factor in changing one’s perceptual bias at the cellular level.

It is also important that a person deal with repressed emotional traumas from the past, as the emotions of a person are a primary perception signaller in the bodymind of a person. Working at an embodied and conscious emotional level where cognitive or mental distortions and false beliefs are made conscious and changed, are the recommended holistic approach to effecting deep and lasting change over time in a person. This approach creates the basis for positive Epigenetic mechanism realignment in a person.

Body Psychotherapy works deliberately and systematically with clients in this way to overturn psychosomatic (emotional based) and psychogenic (mental based) bodily illness and dis-ease. Epigenetic scientists are now stating that a majority of major and lesser chronic recurring illnesses in the body appear to have either a primary or secondary contributing cause of psychosomatic or psychogenic influences.  This makes sense and aligns to Epigenetic science and their documented mechanisms.

Unfortunately some people normalise their victimhood and gain a sense of familiarity with it. They resist change and they resist taking ownership for their lives, and how they can turn that life around by changing their negative limiting self and life beliefs. Indeed it is true that as Nelson Mandela said upon release from imprisonment from the apartheid regime in South Africa, that “it is not that we fear we are weak, it is that we fear we are powerful beyond measure”.

Empowerment and wellness are two key goals of our Body Psychotherapy when working with clients. If you are stuck in victimhood, or dogged with health issues that just bump along the divide between the state of disease or absence of disease, but never lifts into wellness, it is time you looked harder at what reality you have created for yourself, and where that is taking you.

Schedule a Callback