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Are Some People Just Born to Be Happy?

Happily ever after isn’t only for fairy tales. When it comes to putting on a happy face, are genetics or environment more important?
Are Some People Just Born to Be Happy?

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Along with life and liberty, happiness is an unalienable right. And while a range of factors affect happiness levels, some people may be genetically predisposed to walk on sunshine [1].

Jolly Genes — Why It Matters

Research suggests genetic factors account for around 40 to 50 percent of those joyful feelings [1]. Based on studies of twins and siblings, researchers believe certain personality traits, like being sociable, optimistic, and hardworking, are especially heritable. (Slackin’ at work? Blame it on the genes.) And differences in these qualities are closely related to variations in happiness levels [1] [2] [3].

Brain structure also plays a role in the happiness equation. The brain has billions of neurons, or brain cells, and neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers that communicate between brain cells. Certain neurotransmitters regulate emotions, and deficiencies in neurotransmitter levels can bring on the blues. (Try, “It’s not me, it’s my serotonin levels” as a new reason for breaking up.) Genetic factors partially determine the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, meaning some people are predisposed to psychological issues like depression. But biology’s only part of the story.

If You’re Happy and You Know It — The Answer/Debate

Take a tip from the Dalai Lama— joy and unhappiness aren’t predestined fates. Research suggests happiness is a result of the interaction between genetics and environmental factors like income and personal relationshipsSome psychologists think kids’ emotional health depends heavily on what kind of family they grow up in [4]. (No, that is not an excuse to fault the ’rents for making us worrywarts or commitment-phobes.)

But it’s difficult to predict what exactly makes people smile— despite what McDonalds says— because the definition of happiness varies significantly among people [1] [5]. Some research suggests Eastern cultures associate happiness with fitting in, whereas Western cultures focus on celebrating individual success [6]. And, according to other studies, some cultures even view positive expression as inappropriate [5].

Whether in South Carolina or South Korea, the good news is it’s possible to increase happiness in daily life. A jog on the treadmill can boost mood, and healthy eating can improve happiness levels [7]. (A jar of frosting, unfortunately, can’t.) Positive relationships are also important, so beat the blues by phoning a friend or talking it out with a trusted pal [8]. Or at least learn from Bobby McFerrin: Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style, don't worry, be happy.

How do you get a quick mood boost? Tell us in the comments below!

The Takeaway

Genetics influence happiness levels, but environmental factors like positive relationships and a healthy lifestyle can make a difference in how much we smile.

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Works Cited +

  1. Born to be happy? The etiology of subjective well-being. Bartels, M., Boomsma, D.I. Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Behavior Genetics, 2009 Nov;39(6):605-15. Epub 2009 Sep 3.
  2. Happiness is a personal(ity) thing: the genetics of personality and well-being in a representative sample. Weiss, A., Bates, T.C., Luciano, M. Department of Psychology, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. Psychological Science, 2008 Mar;19(3):205-10.
  3. Genetic and environmental influences on optimism and its relationship to mental and self-rated health: a study of aging twins. Mosing, M.A., Zietsch, B.P., Shekar, S.N., et al. Genetic Epidemiology Unit, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Brisbane, Australia. Behavioral Genetics, 2009 Nov;39(6):597-604. Epub 2009 Jul 18.
  4. Parenting and its effects on children: on reading and misreading behavior genetics. Maccoby, E.E. Department of Psychology, Stanford University, California, USA. Annual Review of Psychology, 2000;51:1-27.
  5. What constitutes a good life? Cultural differences in the role of positive and negative affect in subjective well-being. Wirtz, D., Chiu, C.Y., Diener, E., et al. Department of Psychology, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA. Journal of Personality, 2009 Aug;77(4):1167-96. Epub 2009 May 19.
  6. A longitudinal experimental study comparing the effectiveness of happiness-enhancing strategies in Anglo Americans and Asian Americans. Boehm, J.K., Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, KM. Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, CA, USA. Cognition and Emotion, 2011 Nov;25(7):1263-72. Epub 2011 Jun 1.
  7. Exercise research on children and adolescents. Field, T. Touch Research Institute, University of Miami Medical School, Miami, FL. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 2012 Feb;18(1):54-9. Epub 2011 May 4.
  8. Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: an experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J.K., et al. Department of Psychology, University of California, CA, USA. Emotion, 2011 Apr;11(2):391-402.