Is Happiness Hiding in our Genes?

happyMinnesota Twin Family Study researchers David Lykken and Auke Tellegen may have the answer. They examined reported levels of happiness in 1,300 sets of identical and fraternal twins. Identical twins reported similar levels of happiness, while fraternal twins exhibited greater variation in their reported sense of well-being. These results were found in families of twins raised together and extended with twins reared apart. Lykken and Tellegen concluded that nearly half of happiness can be accounted for by genetic factors. The other half is determined by life’s everyday ups and downs. In other words, everyone is born with a certain “set point” for happiness in the same way that your househo0ld thermostat is set to maintain a certain temperature in your home. Tragedies and pleasures might affect your level of happiness. But eventually you will return to your genetic set point, just as the temperature of your home will return to your thermostat’s set point after you have let in cold air by opening a door or window.

These findings have generated an enormous amount of interest around the world, as evidenced buy press coverage in many countries including Argentina, Spain, Germany, Italy, Canada, England, and the United States. This international media attention is just one example of the widespread interest in understanding the source of happiness.


Some media headlines:

*Little pleasures go a long way  (Canadian Press, Body & Mind)
* Peri ricercatori Usa l’insoddisfazione fa parte del patrimonio genetico
“Sarò mai felice?” E’scritto nel Dna
“Inutiel dannarsi, ognuno ha la sua dose”
Dal nostrio inviato Vanna Vannuccini (la Repubblica)
* Temprament trackers: Pursuing key to happiness, researchers look for genes. (Faye Flam, Inquirer)
* Blue genes, New research indicates happiness is inherited (Beth Silver, Associated Press)
*Experts debate whether the key to happiness lies in the genes


Research Report from Psychological Science
Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon
David Lykken and Auke Tallegen
University of Minnesota

Happiness, or subjective well-being, was measured on a birth-record based sample of several thousand middle-aged twins using the Well-Being (WB) scale of the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire.  Neither socioeconomic status, educational attainment, family income, marital status, nor an indicant of religious commitment could account for more than about 3% of the variance in WB.  From 44% to 52% of the variance in WB, however, is associated with genetic variation.  Based on the retest of smaller samples of twins after intervals of 4.5 and 10 years, we estimate that the heritability of the stable component of subjective well-being approaches 80%.


So how can you affect your own happiness?

Dr. Lykken’s advice is simple. He suggests taking small but frequent doses of simple pleasures. “Satisfaction comes from little things, in particular from finding what it is you do well. It’s the little things that can keep you bouncing along above your genetic set point… a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends. Sprinkle your life with them.”



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