Why some people find it harder to be happy

The self-help industry is booming, fueled by research into positive psychology – the scientific study of what makes people thrive. At the same time, the number of anxiety, depression and self-harm continues to rise worldwide. So are we doomed to be unhappy, despite these advances in psychology?

According to an influential article published in the Review of General Psychology in 2005, 50% of people’s happiness is determined by their genes, 10% depends on their circumstances and 40% on “deliberate activity” (mainly, whether you are positive or not). ). This so-called lucky cake put positive-psychological followers at the wheel, allowing them to decide on their happiness trajectory. (Although the unspoken message is that if you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault.)

The lucky cake has been criticized for being based on assumptions about genetics that have been discredited. For decades, behavioral genetics researchers did studies on twins and found that between 40% and 50% of the variance in their happiness was explained by genetics, which is why the percentage appeared in the happiness tail.

Behavioral geneticists use a statistical technique to estimate the genetic and environmental components based on the familial relatedness of people, hence the use of twins in their studies. But these figures assumed that both identical and fraternal twins experience the same environment when they grow up together — an assumption that isn’t quite right.

In response to criticism of the 2005 paper, the same authors wrote a 2019 paper introducing a more nuanced approach to the effect of genes on happiness, recognizing the interactions between our genetics and our environment.

Nature and Education

Nature and nurture are not separate from each other. On the contrary, molecular genetics, the study of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level, shows that they constantly influence each other. Genes influence the behavior that helps people choose their environment. For example, extroversion passed on from parents to children helps children build their friendship groups.

Likewise, the environment changes gene expression. For example, when expectant mothers were exposed to starvation, their babies’ genes changed accordingly, resulting in chemical changes that suppressed the production of a growth factor. This resulted in babies being born smaller than normal and with conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology.
Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

Nature and nurture are interdependent and constantly influence each other. This is why two people raised in the same environment may react differently to it, meaning that the assumption of a similar environment by behavioral genetics is no longer valid. Whether or not people can become happier also depends on their “environmental sensitivity” – their ability to change.

Some people are sensitive to their environment and thus can significantly change their thoughts, feelings and behavior in response to both negative and positive events. So if they attend a wellness workshop or read a book on positive psychology, they may be affected by it and experience significantly more change compared to others — and the change may also take longer.

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

Are we destined to be unhappy? Some people may struggle a little harder to improve their well-being than others, and that struggle can mean they will be unhappy for a longer period of time. And in extreme cases, they may never experience a high level of happiness.

However, others, who have more genetic plasticity, meaning they are more sensitive to the environment and thus have a greater capacity for change, can improve their well-being and perhaps even thrive if they adopt a healthy lifestyle and choose to live and work in an environment that increases their happiness and ability to grow.

But genetics doesn’t define who we are, even though it does play an important role in our well-being. What matters, too, are the choices we make about where we live, who we live with, and how we live our lives that affect both our happiness and the happiness of future generations.

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