Discovery Fit & Health
Newspapers have a bit of a love affair with the so-called “happiness gene.” Every few years, an updated happiness study will set science journalists’ hearts a-flutter, causing an upsurge of headlines like “Happiness Is a Gene-thing.” (Subtext: Those of us without these good genes are in trouble.)
The fact is that yes, a pseudo-happiness gene exists. Researchers have identified the 5-HTT gene, which affects the body’s flow of serotonin, the chemical responsible for warm fuzzy feelings [source: Coghlan]. People with the longer version of this gene were better able to release and process serotonin, resulting in more reports of general life satisfaction. Depending on how many longer chromosomes a person possessed (one or two), the level of reported happiness, increased anywhere from 8.5 percent to 17.3 percent [source: Sample].
Another study looked at survey data from nearly 1,000 pairs of twins, measuring personality traits and levels of happiness. The findings were fairly predictable: Genetically identical twins not only shared more similar personality traits than other types of twins, they also reported strongly parallel feelings of well-being. It makes sense. Personality traits like conscientiousness and sociability are often rooted in genetics and have been proven to help your chances at happiness, something researchers have dubbed your “affective reserve” of happiness [Source: Blue and Nauert].
But here’s the thing: While it’s true that a genetic component to happiness exists, this doesn’t condemn the chromosomally unlucky to a life of depression. Obesity and heart disease are also linked to genes but lifestyle and environment still play an active part in whether those genes get expressed. The same goes for happiness. Researchers concede that our DNA accounts for -- at the very most -- 50 percent of our alleged happiness [source: CBC News].
The rest is up to our environment and personal choice. For instance, studies have found that keeping strong relationships is one of the most effective antidotes to unhappiness and even clinical depression. Cultural background, economic security, and age also have a substantial role. (Worldwide, we’re evidently unhappiest at age 44) [source: Blue].
Finally, happiness studies themselves have to be approached with caution. Though based around the science of genetics, identifying happiness still falls to the subjective moods of the people being tested. And honestly, who definitively knows how happy they are? Inconsistencies can arise from how questions are asked, what time they’re asked or even how pleasant a day the subject had prior to the survey.
Former president Abraham Lincoln said it best: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Serotonin levels and genes may play a supporting role but, ultimately, we are the stars of our own happiness.Slight variations in our DNA sequences can affect things like whether we develop a disease. (Image courtesy Genome Management Information System, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)
While scientists can't pinpoint a single "happiness" gene, there are certain personality traits that contribute to happiness. A study carried out with nearly 1,000 pairs of twins seemed to show that traits such as low-stress, high sociability and conscientiousness contributed to the widest ranges of happiness.
Fortunately, genetics aside, there are things we can all do to give our happiness levels a boost. Positive Psychology, a new discipline started by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, suggests that by practicing gratitude and focusing on the good in life, we can create our own happiness. In addition, performing kind acts and having worthwhile goals contribute to a meaningful and happy life.
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