Is Happiness Genetic?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the science of happiness, including on this very blog.. But could leading a happy life be largely a matter of genes? The U.K.’s Daily Record reports on a finding by Edinburgh University psychologists that “inherited genes control up to half of the personality traits that keep us happy.” Those with the “happy” genes are more able to build up “affective reserves” that kick in when things in life don’t go your way.


re: #4 Deirdre

I think that there are some positive parents who teach their kids to be positive. But some people are just positive regardless. My mother is a very negative person, and I am a very positive person. It could be because of a gene, it could be in reaction to my mother's negativity, who knows.

I'm willing to believe that there's a gene that predisposes people to be happy. But I don't think it should be the only factor we take into consideration. The previous poster who said that this would allow people to absolve themselves of responsibility has a definite point. Some people are just naturally more depressed and negative - but if they act in a way that reinforces that, they won't feel any better, and if they just tell themselves "it's my genes, I'm so unlucky" and don't try to engage in positive activities, that could prove detrimental. And sure, some might warrant drugs for depression, but some might just need to take their lives in hand and do some searching for happiness.



Happiness is genetic? That's depressing.

Doug Nelson

So, if a Dutch or Icelandic baby is adopted and moved to Moldova, he'll have a better chance of being happy than genetic Moldovans?


"This is bull. Please quantify an ephemeral and unmeasurable quality, then get back to me."

Happiness may be subjective, but it is measurable. Have you ever seen a pain chart in a hospital? If one were to rank his or her happiness with a numeric value, then we would have a slightly inaccurate way of measuring such happiness. One would need more research or a greater effect to overcome the margin of error, but it could be done.

It may also be possible to measure quantities of serotonin in the brain, blood pressure, or other factors, but the point is that happiness can be measured, just as well as pain.


So what proteins do these "happiness genes" express and how do those proteins affect brain function that leads to feelings of happiness?

Measuring happiness always seems like a non-starter to me. There is no objective standard to quantify against. Genes may be associated with feelings, but anyone that posits a causative link is delving into territory that gets knotted in self-reference.

For example, my opinions on this study on feelings are modified by the feelings I am experiencing now and my own definition of happiness. Basically, if people think that happiness is genetic it may modulate how people think about happiness and how they self-report about it.


This is bull. Please quantify an ephemeral and unmeasurable quality, then get back to me.


Socrates answered this eons ago- leading a happy life is largely a matter of virtue

John B.

Is it just Americans who insist on finding one irrefutable reason for everything? Personality is determined in-utero and post-birth externalities are irrelevant. Period. Depression is a chemical disorder and has nothing to do with external stimuli. Period. Sexual orientation is genetic and no other factors obtain. Period.

Is it unreasonable to consider that genetic programming and environmental factors affect different people in different ways, and that the determinants of your mental state, or your personality, or your sexual orientation, may differ from the determinants of mine?


there are so many problem in the world. I think all problem will be solve...


Re:comment #2 using twins in genetic studies is the best way (yet) to weed out the "nature Vs nurture" problem. Twins provide a natural source of identical genomes to answer questions such as- is it the make-up of one's genes or is it the environment that one is raised in that leads to a particular outcome ? In this case the outcome is being happy.



Researchers use twin pairs in these studies as an attempt to control for genetic and, to a lesser degree, environmental factors. The thinking is that twins approximate "equivalent" genetic information. If twin happiness differs when segregated by environmental factors (e.g., wealth vs poverty, stress levels, etc.), then genetic factors would not be driving happiness. However, if environmental factors were not correlated, then their shared heritable genetic factors are correlated with happiness levels.


The brain is an electrochemical soup. It is built by the body initially according to genetic code, and thereafter affected by stimuli (i.e. experiences) over time. "Happiness" or lack thereof, results from how the brain functions. It would take an extreme leap of logic to believe that genetics can play NO role in the equation.

This study, and others, appears to confirm this role. Little purpose is served by continuing to deny the effect of physiology (which includes genetics) in mental function. Moralizing about it as commenter #1 (sarah) does, is not relevant to whether or not this connection exists: that physiology contributes to mental function does not grant permission to be irresponsible or amoral.

Many things are physiologically possible for human beings, but not all of these are morally acceptable. What IS, in fact, truly "immoral" is to set back the study of psychology as a whole, by continuing to avoid the reality that physiology plays a role in mental function. Lives can be improved and even saved by effective treatment based upon sound, fact-based psychology; the likelihood of this happening, if psychology is skewed by a desire to deny the importance of physiology, is much less.


Goatboy Slim

I read a great comment once about personality theory, something to the effect that when parents have their first child, they are Environmentalists, but after their second child, they become Determinists.

Deirdre Hamilton

I wouldn't think happiness is genetic. I personal think that being positive about everything in your life can lead to happiness. Then if you can pass that on to your children etc...they can grow up being positive and that can make them happy. That what i think.


Imagine if we replaced the word happiness with 'tennis playing ability'.

If you take a population of people that have never systematically committed to learning tennis, then test them on how good they are at tennis, the variability will have to be explained by genetic factors.

If instead you take a population that has systematically committed to and effectively trained at learning tennis, and repeat the same test, then the amount of variability due to genetic factors will drop and the amount due to 'training' will rise.

What I'm getting at is that in most western countries we think generally of happiness as something that happens to you, not a skill that you need to learn.

Once you recognize that the ability to be happy is a skill, and begin to effectively train yourself in that skill, then I believe you can overcome many of the genetically determined causes of unhappiness.

The irony is that once you begin to take this approach, which at first sounds like a selfish quest for personal happiness, you eventually have to come to the conclusion that the effort has to include everyone not just yourself.



As someone who can think of several naturally produced/regulated "feel-good" chemicals (serotonin jumps to mind first), I would find it unsurprising if happiness does largely come down to genes. (I'm happy to be educated by more learned individuals.)

However, on a personal level, I'm always somewhat concerned by things that encourage people to abdicate responsibility over their own lives and fortunes. To whatever extent happiness is determined by non-genetic factors, and specifically by the individual, I think it is important that the individual fully commit to creating his own happiness. I also think it is hard to do that when one is repeatedly told that his own happiness is really outside of his control (which, as study on these "happy genes" progresses and produces drugs, is bound to happen between the media and advertisers).

Then again, yay for research. It really is amazing how far psychology has come.



One thing seems a little odd: why pick 1000 pairs of twins? Why not just test for the presence/absence of 'happy' genes in happy or unhappy people?

Ellen G

Perhaps happiness is affected by genetics and environment, to varying degrees depending on the relative strength of each influence. Try this analogy on: sadness is like cold. Sometimes the temperature (genetics) makes us feel cold; sometimes wind (environment) makes us chilly. When there's no wind, temperature (genetics) is solely responsible for how we feel. When it's warm, wind (environment) can still make us feel cold. All of us have a beautifully complex and ever-changing combination of both genetic and environmental influences, as fickle, unpredictable and unknowable as the weather. The important difference between mood and weather is that we have the capacity to change mood-- with therapy, pharmaceuticals, meditation... Good luck trying to get the weather to complete a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Also, the 'environment' begins in utero and 'genetics' is a moving target, subjected to epigenetic phenomena such as methylation even as early as when the egg that will one day be a person sits in the future mother's ovary while SHE is a fetus in utero!




If you ask people to rate how 'heppy' they are on a scale of 1 - 10. Most people will say 7.


Jane White UK

Happiness is an ephemeral emotion. If someone were to be constantly happy then they would be considered to be mentally unbalanced - as it is we tend to look askance at people who always have a hugely smiling face or who are thrilled with life all the time.
Most people can clearly recall times and occasions when they felt true happiness unalloyed by any other emotion, and that is because it's a rare feeling and therefore memorable as it stands out more sharply than other memories of times past.
Most of us are 'happy' (!) to be generally contented with life- and that's what most people appear to mean when they say they are happy.

It's my belief and my experience that true happiness arises from a (perhaps small) success in an arduous struggle - that's why we're elated when we pass some important test or succeed in getting appreciably closer to a long term target.
So to be happy more often we need to keep setting ourselves difficult targets - and perhaps it's that which is the genetic component. Those who settle for an easy to reach target achieve it quickly and are then left wondering why they wanted it in the first place.

Happy little soul aren't I.