A Quiet Superpower

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An international study finds meditation can change gene expression, increasing resilience to stress.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part four of ten (parts three and five).

Are genes destiny? They certainly influence our behavior and health outcomes—one study published in 2013 found that genes make some people more inclined to focus on the negative. But more and more research is revealing how it’s a two-way street: Our choices can also influence how our genes behave.


In 2013, a collaborative project between researchers in Spain and France and at the University of Wisconsin found that when experienced meditators meditate, they quiet down the genes that express bodily inflammation in response to stress.


How did they figure this out? Before and after two different retreat days, the researchers drew blood samples from 19 long-term meditators (averaging more than 6000 lifetime hours) and 21 inexperienced people. During the retreat, the meditators meditated and discussed the benefits and advantages of meditation; the non-meditators read, played games, and walked around.


After this experience, the meditators’ inflammation genes—measured by blood concentrations of enzymes that catalyze or are a byproduct of gene expression—were less active. Blood samples from the people in the leisure-day condition did not show these changes.


Why does this matter? The researchers also looked at their study participants’ ability to recover from a stressful event. Long-term meditators’ ability to turn down inflammatory genes, it turns out, predicted how quickly stress hormones in their saliva diminished after a stressful experience—a sign of healthy coping and resilience that can potentially lead to a longer life.


This is good news to people who come from a family of stress cases who are stress-prone themselves: There are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of stressful events. Hard as it may be to find time or get excited about meditating, mounting evidence suggests that it can offer more concrete advantages to a healthy life than the leisurely activities we more readily seek.

Photo by RelaxingMusic, licensed under Creative Commons.

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