I’m going to do a whistle-stop tour of how the environment as we perceive it, changes the body and the expression of our genes according to the science of epigenetics. This can have a beneficial or detrimental impact, depending on where our experience and perceptions lie, but I’m going to look at how this can be a good thing.
Armed with this information we can begin to forge ahead in our understanding of why our perception is so important, but also how the science of positive psychology when tailored, can help us to also be in great physical and mental shape.
What is epigenetics?
According to What Is Epigenetics: ‘It is the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence – a change in phenotype without a change in genotype – which in turn affects how cells read the genes.’
Epigenetics can be considered on part to be the genes responding to the environment via signals that are transported throughout the body via the bloodstream as a carrier, where they then cause a reaction in a cell. The cell is composed of a 50/50 split of DNA and proteins or energy. It was previously believed in science, that the DNA was responsible for what happened or was expressed and that the protein was just basically junk.
Now, as the science of epigenetics grows momentum and understanding, first through the scientists exploring the theory in its infancy such as Conrad Waddington and Ernst Hadorn, and more recently Dr Bruce Lipton, a developmental biologist, what is becoming clear is that the regulator responsible for what happens within that cell is in fact the protein, and the DNA is the blueprint that holds all of the information.
The interesting thing is that this energy or protein in a cell will change based on the signals that the body receives from the brain when interpreting the environment. The brain is setting the scene and the body will then respond accordingly to that, and adapt as it sees fit.
One could say that gaining mastery of the environment therefore allows for tailoring of how the body will adjust to the said environment for good or for bad. So although the blueprint remains the same, the DNA expression is altered, and outcomes have the capacity to be manipulated.
How is epigenetics relevant to love?
When in love, a persons environment feels good, and happiness sets the scene predominantly. When someone is experiencing love, the body will respond according to what the mind is perceiving from the environment. We know that reciprocity of positive feelings is a good thing generally anyway. So when in love, what happens is that the brain will send out signals via the blood stream, which will be picked up by cells in the body. The cells then act accordingly and release relevant hormones.
The hormones that the brain releases when experiencing love, include, but are not exclusively things such as dopamine, oxytocin and growth hormones which are made in the pituitary gland and also secreted into the blood stream. We also know that these are all good hormones.
When this happens, the cells begin to express optimal functioning due to this environmental cue, and people often look and feel at their best and can be described as ‘looking like they are in love’, so basically they glow!
This infusion of good stuff being pumped around the body has caused an expression in the genes that has been facilitated by the protein held in the cell body. The message given to the cells is ‘hey, we’re all good, send out the good stuff!’.
Now we can’t hold on to that initial feeling of love forever, if we are even lucky enough to feel it in the first place. But what we can do is to start cultivating an awareness of our environment that allows for us to feel joy, awe, pleasure, happiness and love of the things that we have within our life for which we can be grateful.
Even if we have to use the 3:1 positivity ration and train ourselves to positivity spot, it’s worth doing. When this becomes a habit we will then regularly seek these feelings of positivity from our environment and continue to send out the good hormones habitually.
The role of gratitude
Gratitude also has a place here, because it allows us to begin to feel more permanent states associated with feelings, like love and the other states of being leading to positive expressions, being interpreted by the cells in the body and acted on.
It is possible to change the set point of happiness, which was always thought to be heritable and fixed, so that you are able to adjust and adapt your mindset to look for the positives, but more importantly to begin to recognise when you have come through a situation and found your set point again. It’s also possible to raise the stakes on the set point so that the bar is set higher.
It takes time, practice, application of a toolkit gained by the understanding contained within positive psychology constructs and repetition for habit forming. But you can raise your happiness set point.
You are what you think you are, so make that as much a positive experience as you can by being the driver of your perceptions about your environment, and your mind set. This will in turn make you feel better generally, both mentally and physically. You respond to what your environment is believed to be as you see it, so subtle shifts in perception can also really help you to be your best self.
Caralyn Bains is a coaching psychologist. She is an associate fellow with the British Psychological Society.