Doing It Better: Our moral genes
by Natasha Josefowitz
Published - 09/26/13 - 05:10 PM | 2515 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I just read something surprising in the Aug. 25 New York Times Magazine: our genes have a moral sense, unbeknown to our minds. They can reward us when we act unselfishly and punish us when we think of our own needs first. These are the unexpected findings in a study done by researchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The answers lie in gene expression. Inside our white blood cells are genes that direct the production of proteins. They are responsible for controlling our bodies’ immune responses. Other genes control inflammation throughout the body.

The study asked volunteers what made them happy. Those who responded that owning or consuming things and generally catering to their own needs and wishes had increased biological markers that promoted inflammation, which in turn increased the likelihood of developing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. These participants also had less antibody production to fight off infections.

On the other hand, the study participants that spoke of their happiness based on service to others, volunteering, having a sense of higher purpose rather than catering to their own needs, showed a lower level of inflammation and higher levels of antibody production.

To explain this phenomenon in evolutionary terms, it makes sense that to survive, our species had to learn to work for the common good, and thus give up on their individual concerns.

What I found fascinating in this study is an answer to something that had puzzled me. I had read of other research that showed the benefit of volunteering in terms of better health and even longevity — even if the volunteering is just one hour a week. I always thought it was due to the participation providing a sense of community, which benefits us psychologically. Now we know it affects our biology at the most fundamental level.

I have noticed for myself that when I have been helpful to someone, I feel good and if I could have been helpful or kind and was not, I am left with an uneasy feeling afterward.

The importance of this information is obvious: you want to stay healthy, become a more caring loving person. Even when someone is unpleasant, I think, “This person is not happy.” When someone is mean or angry, I think, “This person must either be hurting or anxious or frightened.” Then I am able to look for a way to help instead of retaliating or ignoring the person. Even if I decide that the best way to help is to disengage, I am left feeling altruistic.

Compassion is the feeling I try to express. I admit not always successfully, but now I will try harder because I know it will make me healthier.

Which brings me to a philosophical dilemma: If I increase my service to others in order to reduce inflammation and promote antibodies in my white blood cells, am I being selfish thinking primarily of my own welfare or will the altruistic behavior convince my genes that I am on the up and up? I leave my readers to ponder this.
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