Scientists in Scotland and Australia who studied more than 900 pairs of twins, found that genes play a significant part in determining how happy we are in life.

The study is published in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science and was led by Dr Alexander Weiss, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.

Scientists already knew that subjective wellbeing, or how happy we feel, is linked to personality traits.

However, until now, nobody had looked at whether personality and subjective wellbeing had any common genetic origins.

Weiss and colleagues examined 973 pairs of twins using the well known Five Factor Model (FFM) that psychologists use to assess personality from questionnaire responses.

Some of the twins were identical (exactly the same genes) and some were not, so it was possible to compare results from the two groups to see how strongly particular personality traits were likely to be influenced by genes.

In this case the researchers were particularly interested in tendency to worry, be sociable and conscientious. These are known to be linked to subjective wellbeing and an overall sense of happiness.

The researchers found that people who did not worry too much, were sociable and conscientious tended to be happier, and they suggested that this combination acts as a buffer, an “affective reserve” of happiness, that shields them during stressful times or when they need to recover.

From comparisons between the two types of twins, they found that up to 50 per cent of the traits were influenced by genetics.

However, they pointed out that the other 50 per cent of the differences between people and their happiness in life is down to things they can influence to some extent, like relationships, careers and health.

Weiss said that:

“Together with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is a core human desire. Although happiness is subject to a wide range of external influences we have found that there is a heritable component of happiness which can be entirely explained by genetic architecture of personality.”

Happiness is increasingly being studied by scientists. For example, the new field of positive psychology which Dr Martin Seligman, Chairman of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center defines as a new branch of psychology that “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions”.

The UK based Centre for Applied Positive Psychology also supports research into techniques for improving personal happiness and their representative, Dr Alex Linley, spoke to the BBC about Weiss’s study.

Linley told BBC News that there were several studies claiming a significant genetic basis for happiness, but he added that it was wrong for people to assume this was fixed and they couldn’t change their happiness level.

He saw the genetic influence as giving people a range of levels of happiness:

“It is perfectly possible to influence this with techniques that are empirically proven to work,” he said.

Linley gave examples like making a list of strengths and making a point of using them in new ways every day, or making a note every night of three things that made you feel grateful that day.

It is like the old adage, perhaps my genes deal me the cards, but it is up to me how I play my hand.

“Happiness Is a Personal(ity) Thing: The Genetics of Personality and Well-Being in a Representative Sample.”
Alexander Weiss, Timothy C Bates, Michelle Luciano.
Psychological Science 19 (3) , 205�”210.
Volume 19 Issue 3 Page 205-210, March 2008.

Click here for Abstract.

Source: University of Edinburgh press release, University of Pennsylvania, BBC News.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD