The pursuit of happiness

  • Created by: Chloe
  • Created on: 09-12-13 14:03

I have reduced and edited the article by Jo Marchant to use as a tool for revision of happiness and Immunology.

When Steve Cole was a postdoc, he enjoyed matching art buyers with artists that they might like. The task made looking at art even more enjoyable. “There was an extra layer of purpose. I loved the ability to help artists I thought were great to find an appreciative audience,”.

At one time, most self-respecting molecular biologists would have scoffed at the idea. Today, evidence from many studies suggests that mental states such as stress can influence health, it has proved difficult to explain how this happens at the molecular level — how subjective moods connect with the vastly complex physiology of the nervous and immune systems.

The field - psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), is often criticized as lacking rigour. Cole's stated aim is to fix that, and his tool of choice is genome-wide transcriptional analysis: looking at broad patterns of gene expression in cells. “My job is to be a hard-core tracker,” he says. “How do these mental states get out into the rest of the body?At the time, it was nothing more than a quirky sideline. But his latest findings have caused Cole — now a professor at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at University of California, LA — to wonder whether the exhilaration and sense of purpose that he felt during that period might have done more for him- it might have benefited his immune system too.

Cole has published a string of studies suggesting negative mental states such as stress and loneliness may guide immune responses by driving broad programs of gene expression, shaping our ability to fight disease. If he is right, the way people see the world could affect everything from their risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease to the progression of conditions such as HIV and cancer. Now Cole has moved from negative moods into the even more murky territory of happiness. It is a risky strategy; his work has already been criticized as wishful thinking and moralizing. But the pay-off is nothing less than finding a healthier way to live. 

Two opinions come out here, one a skeptical although reasonable discern that our mood should in no way affect our genetic ability to fight diseases. The other possibly skeptical still but remaining positive is that, even if it may have no link, we should still delve into this area because it may be a 'free' way to enhance our health.

“If you talk to any high-quality neurobiologist or immunologist about PNI, it will invariably generate a little snicker,” says Stephen Smale, an immunologist, who is not affiliated with the Cousins Center. “But this doesn't mean the topic should be ignored forever. Someday we need to confront it and try to understand how the immune system and nervous system interact.”

The best medicine? In 1964, magazine editor Norman Cousins was diagnosed with…


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