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
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