Is happiness genetic or a choice?
Short answer: Both.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, says, “A lot of happiness is genetically determined, up to 50%.”
That statistic comes from several studies of identical twins. Researchers found that when they compared the happiness of identical twins, who share 100% of their genetic makeup, each was remarkably similar from a happiness perspective, despite the various things, good and bad, that had happened to each twin over the years. This, researchers concluded, shows that everyone has a “happiness set point” that is determined by genetics.
But if only half our happiness levels are inherited, that leaves plenty of room for improvement, says Lyubomirsky. “We can become happier,” she says. “It involves effort and commitment. I make the analogy with weight loss, where some are luckier than others. If you’re less fortunate, you have to put more effort into it. Maybe every week you need to do something to maintain your happiness.” (See “12 tips for a happier life”)
Happy by choice
Lisa Napoli admits choosing to be happy isn’t easy. A longtime journalist, she realized several years ago that being surrounded by professional cynics was having a corrosive effect on her mental health. She heard about a local happiness class, went and started to work on her attitude. “It was about approaching life from a point of abundance rather than a point of lack,” she says. “But unless you’re naturally wired that way, it takes some work.”
Napoli ended up taking leave and traveling to Bhutan to help run a local radio station. That experience led her to write Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. (Napoli notes the “happiest kingdom on earth” label is a Bhutanese marketing tactic rather than a scientific fact.)
Napoli says she feels happier today having adopted a new aspect of life, common among Bhutanese. “I felt a big lack … not having any kind of religious framework or belief system,” she says. In Bhutan “religion was very public. I started studying with a monk when I got back. For me it unlocked this dormant spirituality.” This has added to her sense of well-being.
Benefits of being happy
According to Hope College’s David Myers, “Happier people are more altruistic, even if they’re temporarily made happy by finding money in a phone booth.” Research shows “they’re more likely thereafter to help somebody with dropped groceries.” It’s what he calls “the feel-good, do-good effect.” Happier people are easier to live with, too. They are less preoccupied with themselves and more interested in others.
Lyubomirsky points to other benefits of happiness, gleaned during her research. “People who are happier have stronger immune systems, experience less pain, are more likely to survive surgery and they live longer,” she says. When it comes to relationships, they are more likely to find marriage partners and less likely to get divorced. “They earn more money and are more likely to be hired on a job interview,” she says. And they’re likely to be friendlier and better liked.