Oh, wouldn’t it be great: a single gene responsible for all of human happiness.
Unfortunately, as you may expect, it’s not that simple.
But it does make you wonder; if we found a large group of people who were all remarkably happy, would they be in possession of unique genes, that others aren’t?
Is happiness genetic?
The notion of happiness being genetic calls upon many angles of critical thinking, from psychological understanding to scientific research as well as philosophical concepts.
In this article I will thoroughly explore the topic of genes and the happiness of humans.
Are there any genes that have been found to correlate with happiness?
If there are, who has them?
Are there any known markers that make people predisposed to happiness, genetically?
Bonus: Download this article as a PDF for later reading.
How can we know if happiness is genetic or not?
i) Understanding correlation
Essentially, if we are to know whether there are genes which are correlated to happiness, we need to do two things:
a) Measure a hypothesised gene of happiness within the individual.
b) Measure the happiness levels of the individual.
To clarify, using an example: If we wanted to know the effect of the size of a chocolate on sense of euphoria, and we theorize that the larger the chocolate the happier the individual will be, we must know exactly the size of the chocolate in question, and the exact levels of happiness of the consumers (my in-house experiments have shown a statistically significant positive correlation).
If we know these two things, we can see if there is any correlation between the two elements, and begin drawing meaningful conclusions.
ii) Which specific type of study is best for happiness and genetics?
The type of research I’m going to discuss, specifically here, is called a case-controlled designed study.
The reason is this is a highly effective way of looking at the correlation between the two elements, and is the method by why some of the industry-changing studies have been done which put the happiness-genetics world on fire.
A case control design is, essentially, structured like this:
(a) Two groups of people, we could call ‘cases’ and ‘controls’.
(b) The case subjects have a certain gene. the controls do not.
(c) We then measure the trait (in our case, happiness) we are looking for in each subject, and find out if either of the groups correlated to the trait, or if it does not.
The difference in the frequency of the specific gene which correlated to the trait between the two groups indicates that this gene may increase the chance of that trait arising in the individual.
(a) There are specific ways to measure whether happiness is genetic.
(b) This required a large enough sample size of people so that a clear picture can be made.
(c) Correlating a specific gene to happiness levels gives us a much better understanding of the relationship between genetics and happiness.
So, is happiness genetic?
i) An important study
One of the publications that, as I mentioned before, lit the ‘happiness-genetics’ world on fire is entitled ‘Functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the serotonin transporter gene is associated with subjective well-being: evidence from a US nationally representative sample’.
I’ll break down the meaning of the title shortly.
This study did exactly what we discussed above, specifically:
(a) Studied over 2,500 individuals.
(b) Assessed the 5-HTT gene.
(c) Assessed a variation, or allele, of the 5-HTT gene.
(d) Assessed the happiness of the participants
(e) Looked for any correlations between the variation gene, and happiness.
ii) Gene 5-HTT and serotonin
This study looked at this specific gene because it has long been one of the most, if not the most, studied gene in all of psychiatry.
It’s been discovered on numerous occasions that it has links to stress, depression, and especially anxiety.
The specific part of the gene the study looked at is called 5-HTTLPR, otherwise known as the serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region.
What you essentially need to know is this:
5-HTTLPR is the gene that codes for the serotonin transporter.
Serotonin is a chemical that is strongly correlated with subjective well-being and happiness, especially confidence. Hence why it has been confirmed on many occasions that lack of serotonin is linked to anxiety.
What we know is that there are long (LL) and short (SS) variations of the 5-HTTLPR gene, and this study looked at whether the length of the gene was correlated to an increase or decrease in happiness.
The participants were asked;
“How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”
They had five possible answers to chose from:
(a) Very satisfied
(d) Very dissatisfied
iii) The results
The longer variation of the gene showed one specific difference in activity: it was more efficient at uptaking serotonin.
Essentially this means it is better at absorbing the chemicals that ‘code’ for happiness.
The results reflected this, showing the long variation of the gene strongly correlated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
Specifically, they found that those with the efficient (long-long) version of the gene were:
(a) Very satisfied [35%], compared to 19% for those with the short-short form.
(b) Satisfied [34%], compared to 19% for those with the short-short form.
In addition, they found that those with the less efficient (short-short) version of the gene were:
(a) Dissatisfied [26%], compared to 20% for those with the long-long form.
Furthermore, the researchers found that if a subject had one long variation of 5-HTTLPR gene you were more likely to be satisfied with life, and if you had two, that likelihood continued to increase substantially:
iv) Further research
It has been confirmed scientifically that there are discrepancies in well being amongst different countries. As the above study was done only on citizens in the US, it’s great to look at how this type of study would pan out in a completely different country, culture and population.
A study, called “Association between the serotonin transporter polymorphism (5HTTLPR) and subjective happiness level in Japanese adults” addressed this issue perfectly. The study went as follows:
(a) 92 healthy Japanese individuals were studied.
(b) Subjective happiness was evaluated using the 4-point Subjective Happiness Scale.
(c) Associations between the 5-HTTLPR gene and subjective happiness levels were evaluated.
Three variations of the gene were studied, the short version (SS), the long version (LL) and a variation of both (SL – still a carrier of the long variation).
The results are as follows:
(a) The 5-HTTLPR gene is the gene strongly associated with happiness and life satisfaction.
(b) Specifically, it is the long version of the gene that codes for increased happiness.
(c) The higher number of long-version 5-HTTLPR genes an individual has, the happier the individual may be.
(d) Consistent results are found across distant and vastly different countries.
Who has this gene?
For years it has intrigued my why Denmark come up within the top 5 for every major international survey done on the happiest countries in the world.
Thorough research shows that there are many moving parts influencing this title.
One of them, more recently found, is genetics.
An absolutely remarkable study, entitled “National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration” took the study of genetics and happiness to a new level. The study did the following:
(a) Reviewed data from 131 countries.
(b) Studied 3 forms of evidence for the link between happiness and genetics, namely;
1. Genetic distance between country’s populations
2. The association between mental well-being and the 5-HTTLPR gene.
3. Whether the genetics and happiness association maintained between generations.
The results were fascinating, but not surprising:
The researchers, Dr Eugenio Proto and Professor Andrew Oswald, found that the further the genetic distance from Danish population, the lower the reported well-being of the nation was. That is to say, the more different the genetic makeup of a population is from Denmark, the less happy they are.
Secondly, they found that, again, the longer variation of the 5-HTTLPR gene correlated to happiness, and that the Danish population have the highest percentage of this variation. Dr Proto said:
“We looked at existing research which suggested that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in the study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.”
Finally, when assessing how happiness and genetics vary between generations, they found an ‘unexplained positive correlation’ between people in the US and the genetic makeup of some of the nations where their ancestors came from.
Does this gene account for all of our happiness and life satisfaction?
i) Is happiness all due to genetics?
The natural question to ask, knowing what you know now, is;
Is this gene the sole factor in determining individual happiness?
The answer is no.
As the author of the first study, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said;
“The results of our study suggest a strong link between happiness and this functional variation in the 5-HTT gene. Of course, our well-being isn’t determined by this one gene – other genes and especially experience throughout the course of life will continue to explain the majority of variation in individual happiness. But this finding helps to explain why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be naturally happier than others, and that’s in no small part due to our individual genetic make-up.”
In her outstanding book, The How of Happiness, author Sonja Lyubomirsky remarked on vigorous research and showed that chronic (long-term) happiness can be broadly attributed to three primary causes: genetics, circumstances and intentional activities.
The ratio of influence for these three are as follows:
As you can see, happiness has a large genetic influence. That being said, a very large factor influencing our happiness is not genetic, as you can see. This should be the main focus of your attention going forward.
ii) Your genetics and happiness
It’s tempting to want to know whether your genes are primed for happiness and whether it is possible to influence our genetics to permanently increase our happiness, but this would not particularly be the best use of time.
The reason being is, as shown, genetics do not fully control your happiness. Research results show a varying influence of between 33% and 50% maximum.
Time, therefore, should be spent trying to maximise on the other 40% and leave genetics to play it’s part.
Research confirms that consciously building habits and regular activities into your day-to-day routines have a long-term influence on happiness. Thankfully, these activities (discussed more below) are not difficult, time consuming, short-term or costly.
What can you do to be happier?
At this stage, you may be feeling on some level a bit doomed to a life of happiness controlled by your genetics.
It’s important, to remember however, that genetics is only a part of the equation.
Up to 50% of our long-term happiness can be attributed to happiness.
So what practical things can you do to ensure the other 40% which is under direct influence by you, can be done.
What you probably do not realise is that you are one of very few individuals that actually take the time to consciously develop their personal well-being and happiness.
Studies have regularly shown that doing this can positively effect your satisfaction in life, it’s not just a wish or hopeful desire.
The high majority of people go through life pursuing goals that aren’t prioritised by happiness, and thus they achieve temporary emotional highs, unknown to the truth of the ‘hedonic adaptation’, otherwise known as the ‘hedonic treadmill’.
However, research shows there are some activities that really do make a difference.
I have discuss the four core principles shown to make the most difference in The Happiness Report, which discusses the SARP Model for Long-Term Happiness.
With this, as we’ve discussed Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work, I would like to share 12 intentional activities she has researched that are impactful:
1. Counting your blessings
2. Cultivating optimism
3. Avoiding over-thinking and social comparison
4. Practicing acts of kindness
5. Nurturing relationships
6. Doing more activities that truly engage you
7. Replaying and savouring life’s joys
8. Commitment to your goals
9. Developing strategies for coping
10. Learning to forgive
11. Practicing religion and spirituality
12. Taking care of your body
As you can see, none of these are asking you to move country, change jobs, pursue a new skill to mastery, spend a lot of money or begin/end any relationships.
They are simple, practical, easy-to-implement and most importantly, they work.
I don’t know for sure what your position was before reading this article, but I might be able to assume it was one of three positions:
1. “I hope genetics are 100% responsible for my happiness so I don’t have to take responsibility for my satisfaction in life”.
2. “I refuse to believe my genetics are responsible for my emotions”.
3. “I’m open to the suggestion genetics are responsible for my happiness and am curious to what extent and what other factors may be playing a part in conjunction with genetics”.
Genetics, like I said in the introduction, brings a lot of different opinions forward, because any idea of genetics being responsible for the way we are can make us feel a lack of control, which is a feeling known to affect our wellbeing.
I would advise you consider taking the third approach. Not just with this topic, but with all topics.
Research is always an on-going process and new insights are found regularly. From what we do know to date, genetics do have an impact on our happiness.
However, it is not the only influence, and study after study has shown that taking up new habits and practices can help us experience a substantially higher level of personal well-being.
Bonus: Download this article as a PDF for later reading.Header Image via Shutterstock/Ollyy