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Blaming Our Genes For Our Unhappiness

Blaming Our Genes For Our Unhappiness

Were we by birth already destined to lead a sad or happy life?

Think of the happiness of your friends and family. Aren’t some of them enjoying in everything around them while others always appear somewhat sadder, whatever happens?  What is that? For a large part it is genes, studies show.

There are lots of different things that can increase a person’s happiness. There is money – up to a certain income – there is marriage and children,  there are friends, and there even is the contagion of friend’s happiness. But another factor, far less easy to manipulate, is people’s genetic make-up.

Happiness in twins

If you think again about the people around you, this last one seems pretty dominant. Happiness appears to be just in people’s character. But can we also scientifically prove this effect of genes on happiness? ‘Yes’, Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve thought. He saw the answer in twins.

By comparing the similarity of self-reported life satisfaction in, on the one hand, identical and, on the other hand, non-identical twins he could statisically estimate the share of genes in influencing a person’s happiness. And the influence indeed was big. Genetic make up seemed to explain 33 percent of how satisfied a subject reported to be with his life.

Other studies did generally the same and published even higher shares, of 40 to 50 percent. So genes do matter for happiness, De Neve and other scientists conclude. That does not mean, however, that genes determine happiness. Events in your life will still matter most.

To what extent these events are again influenced by your either happy or unhappy genes, influencing your behaviour and hereby shaping your life course, is another question that needs to be investigated.  Eleven researchers together published a paper in PNAS this year discussing this complex system of genes and life events influencing happiness.

The influence of genes does not replace the influence of environmental factors, they stress, as they often go hand in hand. And even if a very large part of our happiness is determined by our genes, we should never give up hope to increase it. Look at eyeglasses, they quote yet another researcher, A. Goldberger: “the introduction of eyeglasses dramatically improves vision even though eyesight is highly heritable.”

If you like to see de Neve himself talk about his study and showing you some graphs, here is his TED-talk:


  • Meike Bartels, Dan Benjamin, David Cesarini, Magnus Johannesson, Phil Koellinger, Bob Krueger, Patrik Magnusson, Jan-Emmanuel de Neve, Nancy Pedersen, Niels Rietveld, and Henning Tiemeier (2013). Molecular Genetics and Subjective Well-Being Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222171110
  • De Neve, Jan-Emmanuel; Christakis, Nicholas A.; Fowler, James H.; Frey, Bruno S. (2012). Genes, economics, and happiness. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics DOI: 10.1037/a0030292

happy gene, happiness gene, 5htt

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  • Jeph
    July 29, 2013, 16:43

    I was surprised to learn that our genes determine our ability to be happy to such a large extent with some studies ranging from 33 up to 50 percent of our happiness determined by genetic factors. Of course they say environmental factors and life events are most important. I feel that I am generally a happy person, maybe this means I have the genes for happiness. Some people who are unhappy all of the time may not have happiness genes as strong as others. This may help people to understand why they are unhappy or why they cannot experience happiness like others. We all still must try to make choices to try to be happy regardless of our genetics.

  • nicole mullins
    July 30, 2013, 17:59

    I think this is very true. every child is unique and has different behaviors and reactions. in ch.9 of my psychology book they talk about temperament traits in babies and how they react to other people and places. there are four types temperament traits: pleasure seeking and sociable, ambitious and leader-like, analytical and thoughtful, and relaxed and quiet. depending on which trait you are, it could determine your ability to be happy with everything around you or sadder by everything around you.

  • Hailey
    July 30, 2013, 23:23

    This article relates to chapter 9 in “Discovering Psychology” because in the introduction of this chapter it discusses genotypes
    and discusses the temperament traits starting from a baby. To an extent I
    believe that happiness and sadness can be genetic but some kids venture off and
    have a completely different relationship than their parents did while growing
    up. My thought while reading this article consisted of many kids who were
    adopted and not being able to know their parents because the parents were
    hooked on drugs. What if the child who was adopted was raised into a loving and
    happy environment and the kids grew up to be very happy and successful? Another
    scenario I thought about were the parents being very happy and content and
    having a child who grew up to be a rebel and be completely miserable with its
    life. Maybe those cases are exceptions but I think the biggest key role in
    being happy is the events that take place in the person’s life.

  • Ben M
    July 31, 2013, 00:03

    Happiness, one of the most basic human emotions, can be studied in correlation with the correct gene make-up, but as noted, is not determined by gene make-up. psychologist James Russel conducted research on various different cultures and came to the conclusion that the degree of which an emotion is found to be pleasant or unpleasant along with a level of co-in-siding activation is the main factor in determining how happy, sad, or etc. one will be from development and on. Interpersonal engagement is also one of the main factors in determining the happiness of a child throughout development; neither of these do I see having much to do with gene make-up. While gene make-up is important and may correlate the results, I do not currently see strong enough evidence to support such a claim.

  • sean
    July 31, 2013, 00:18

    it does make sense. According to the basic bio-psychological knowledge,
    human’s emotion determine by their body. For example, Robert W. Levenson
    found that fear, anger and fear showed differences that confirm
    everyday experience. Levenson believe that differing patterns of
    sympathetic nervous system activation are universal, reflecting
    biological responses to the basic emotions. If human’s DNA decide your
    sympathetic nervous system, then, this article will make sense.