Why it is harder for some people to be happy (and how much genes have to do with it)

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The self-help industry is booming. It has been gaining momentum for years through positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes people prosper. Yet at the same time, rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm are growing around the world. Are we doomed to be unhappy, despite these advances in psychology?

When we talk about positive psychology, we have to remember an article published in Review of General Psychology in 2005, which changed the way we used to view our happiness.

The study revealed that 50% of people’s happiness is determined by their genes, 10% depends on your circumstances and the 40% of “intentional activity” (mainly, if you are optimistic or not).

That X-ray made the acolytes of positive psychology take control of the discourse on how much we can decide about our own happiness (with that unspoken message that if you are not satisfied, it is your fault).

However, that “cake of happiness” has been widely criticized because it was based on assumptions about genetics that they have been discredited.

For decades, researchers conducted studies with twins and established that it is genetics that explains how their happiness differs by 40 to 50%.

Behavioral geneticists use a statistical technique to estimate genetic and environmental components based on people’s family relationships, hence the use of twins in their studies.

The problem is, they assumed that both identical twins and twins experience the same environment when growing up together, an assumption that doesn’t really hold up.

In response to criticism of the 2005 article, the same authors wrote another text in 2019 who introduced a more nuanced approach on the effect of genes on happiness, since it recognized the interactions between our genetics and our environment.

Nature and education

The nature and nurture they are not independent of each other.

Molecular genetics – the study of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level – shows that these two elements constantly influence each other and are interdependent.

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Genes influence behaviour that helps people to choose your environment. For example, extroversion passed down from parent to child helps children build their friendship groups.

In the same way, the environment changes the expression of genes.

For example, in the case of mothers who were exposed to hunger during pregnancy, their babies’ genes were changed, resulting in chemical transformations that suppressed the production of a growth factor.

As a result, the babies were born smaller than usual and with conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

This is the reason why two people raised in the same environment can respond differently to the same stimulus. Thus discarding the behavioral genetics assumption that an egalitarian environment results in similar responses.

Also, whether or not people may be happier depends on their “Environmental sensitivity”. That is, of their ability to change.

Some people are susceptible to their environment and therefore can significantly change their thoughts, feelings, and behavior in response to both negative and positive events.

So when they attend a wellness workshop or read a positive psychology book, they can be influenced by it and experience significantly greater change compared to others. The change may also last longer.

But there is no intervention by positive psychology that works for all people because we are as unique as our DNA. That is, we have a different capacity for well-being and its fluctuations throughout life.

Are we destined to be unhappy?

Some people get fight some more to improve their well-being than others, and that struggle can mean that sean unhappy for longer periods.

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In extreme cases, they may never experience high levels of happiness.

On the other hand, those who have more genetic plasticity (that is, those who are more sensitive to the environment and have greater capacity for change) can improve their well-being and perhaps even prosper if they adopt a healthy lifestyle and choose to live and work in an environment that enhances their happiness and capacity for growth.

But genetics do not determine who we are, even if it plays an important role in our well-being.

What also matters are the decisions we make about where we live, who we live with and how we live our lives, which affect both our happiness and the happiness of future generations.

* This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read the original version here.

Jolanta Burke is Senior Lecturer at the Center for Positive Psychology and Health, University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin, Ireland.

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