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How Genes Influence Happiness

Understanding the link between DNA and well-being.

From curly hair to an introverted character, there is a lot we inherit from our parents. But is it possible that our genes can also influence our well-being?

According to science, yes – happiness, indeed, has a heritable component.

It’s a finding that is surprising and not surprising at the same time. It's surprising because of our culturally-sanctioned convictions that with our choices, thoughts, and behavior, we have the final say on how well we function in our lives, not our circumstances. But it's also not surprising because if our genes play a part in shaping who we are in the world, they will also have a say in how we pursue and find happiness.

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Professor Meike Bartels, a leading researcher in the field of genetics, uses twin and DNA studies to explore the role of genes in well-being. Because identical twins share their genetic material, any difference in their well-being should be due to environmental effects, says Dr. Bartels, making twin studies a powerful tool in understanding the genes-happiness interplay. The main takeaway from Dr. Bartels’ research is that we are all different and a part of our differences stems from our genes. Respecting these differences – whether in research or in our everyday choices – would make for a better world.

Here are 8 questions on how genes influence happiness with Dr. Bartels.

What does it mean to say that well-being is partially heritable?

It means that a part of the differences between people’s well-being is accounted for by genetic differences. People might inherit genes that put them in advantageous or less favorable positions. Genes can also provide certain vulnerabilities. But, even if you inherit genes that make you vulnerable to depression, you don’t have to be depressed. Similarly, you might have a very high genetic predisposition for well-being, but it’s not the endpoint. The environment is also very important.

What has a greater influence on our happiness – genes or environment?

According to the simple model, 40% of differences between people in their well-being are accounted for by genetic differences, while the remainder 60% of differences are accounted for by environmental influences. However, this model assumes that there is no interplay between genes and the environment. In reality, genes interplay with the environment in a variety of ways. For example, some people might be very sensitive to sunlight and get sunburned easily, while others may not. The differences in the sensitivity to sunlight are based on the pigmentation of the skin, which is based on the genotype. Another example of the gene-environment interplay is how our genes drive our environmental exposure. If you are an extrovert, for instance, you probably enjoy places with many people.

What genes make you more susceptible to happiness?

There are different human characteristics that appear to overlap in a genetic predisposition for happiness, including optimism, resilience and cognitive styles. We have identified 300 locations in the human genome that are related to differences in well-being. Together, these explain only 2% of the differences between people. There are still many more unidentified genetic effects.

Can you go against your genes (personality) and learn to be happy?

Yes, to a certain extent. For example, if you were to rate your life on a scale from 0 to 10, and based on your family background and genes, consider your life to be a 4, you could rise it to a 5 or 6 if you find the right intervention. But your score will likely never go up to an 8 or above. It’s not easy to jump up the scale.

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Why are some people happier than others, even when they find themselves in similar circumstances?

It’s easier to understand this when we draw a parallel with exercise. If you are a non-exerciser, with the right training and support, you could turn into someone who exercises more or less regularly. But you will likely never become a dedicated marathon runner (of course, with exceptions). Or if you are training with a group, even with the same program, people will progress at different rates. Some will make big jumps in their physical abilities, while others will show little progress. The same holds true for happiness and well-being. It takes a long time to change habits and behavior, so complete transformations (from a low score to a high score) are unlikely. Moreover, doing the exact same thing will work for some and not for others. It’s also why some people are happier than others, even if they find themselves in similar circumstances. All of this variation is due partly to our genetic predisposition. And everything that involves human characteristics, such as habits, personality, general attitude towards life, all has a genetic component.

How can we use the genes-environment interplay for our advantage?

I think in the future we will be able to have our own personalized genetics scores for well-being that can help find the right interventions for us. For example, if you have a high genetic predisposition for happiness but you don’t feel well or you are having depressive symptoms, instead of working on your symptoms through therapy or medication, we could intervene on increasing your well-being. This can be done using various methods, such as working on your strengths or learning to be more optimistic. But if we know that you have a low genetic predisposition for happiness, then it’s probably not the right way to go.

What does genetics research teach us about leading happier lives?

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We should realize that the biological differences between us mean that there is no one golden rule or protocol to make everybody happy. For each individual it will be a product of their genes and environment. You must figure out for yourself in what circumstances and environments you feel well. That’s easier said than done. We are a complex society, and to be completely honest with yourself about what makes you happy may take a lifetime. This is one reason why older people are generally happier. Firstly, they are less sensitive to what the environment says. Secondly, they have sorted out what makes them happy. It’s an optimistic message, as long as people have the opportunity and courage to try to find their own interventions. At some point people know what makes them happy, but that doesn’t mean that they are able to change their lives accordingly.

In your opinion, what is the key to leading a happy life?

I think there are 2 keys:

1) Get to know yourself.

2) Be important for at least someone in the world. Whether you have a big group of friends or just one person who you feel connected to, you should matter to at least someone in the world.

Many thanks to Professor Meike Bartels for her time and insights. Dr. Bartels is University Research Chair Professor in Genetics and Wellbeing at the Department of Biological Psychology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Netherlands Twin Register.

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