Imagine if Aristotle could have proven his philosophical theories with science in 332 BC? Well, if he were born today, he might have been able to show how we each differ in our belief in what constitutes the meaning of life based on our genetic make-up.
A new study published in Scientific Reports discovered evidence for the first time ever that shows our biological differences determine whether we think the meaning of life is about seeking pleasure over pain or ‘hedonic’, a theory put forward by Aristippus in 356 BC, or whether it’s about doing good deeds, acquiring knowledge over time, and living to your own potential or ‘eudaimonic’ as Artistotle contended.
Turns out, they were both right depending on each person’s genetic differences. As study author, Professor Meike Bartels from Vrije University in Amsterdam told us, the purpose of the study was to identify genetic variants that could explain difference in meaning in life and to see whether the genetic variants for happiness are overlapping to the genetic variants for meaning in life.
Bartels and colleagues conducted a genome-wide association study, where they tested the association between genetic variants and meaning in life in a large sample of 220,000 individuals. They went on to calculate the genetic correlation to get a hold of the overlap in genetic influences between meaning in life and happiness.
“We located two genetic variants that explain a tiny amount of the variance in meaning in life,” Bartels told us. “We furthermore showed that the set of genetic variants that are important in explaining difference in happiness (hedonic well-being) are overlapping to the set that explains differences in meaning in life (eudaimonic well-being).”
Bartels was not surprised with the results but says it is good to be able to investigate long standing debates with large datasets to determine whether hedonic well-being is related to eudaimoinc well-being or not.
“This is the first evidence that genetic differences play a role for differences in meaning in life between individuals,” Bartels told us. “The environment is of course also very important and in the end this is the first step to get a better hold of the complex but interesting interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental influences for important aspects of human well-being, meaning in life and happiness.”
Bartels wants to make it clear that it is important that this is a first step and that the results need to be replicated in independent samples. Furthermore, the study does not claim that these genetic variants are unique for meaning in life. Most genetic variants are part of a pleotropic system, so are important for other human traits and characteristics as well.
Bartels and her colleagues decided to do this study because their line of research focuses on the causes of differences in well-being.
“We identified the first genetic variants for subjective well-being (happiness and satisfaction with life) about two years ago and this was the next step,” Bartels told us. “We furthermore always have been very interested in the overlap and differences between hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.”
In the future, she hopes to learn more about the gene-environment interplay related to differences in well-being to help those with lower levels of well-being to overcome suffering.
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com