Who The Health Knows: Is Happiness Genetic?
The Rumor: Happiness is genetic, so if you're born unhappy, you're pretty much screwed
When it comes to being happy, some people are literally born that way: Statistics show that 50 percent of what makes a person happy is genetic. Yes, that's right: Your general level of happiness is predisposed from the moment you’re born. And that's all well and good -- if you're one of those people who came into this world with a built-in propensity for gladness. But what if you got the short end of the genetic joy stick? Are you doomed to a life of misery (or at least meh-ness)?
The Verdict: Even if you're genetically predisposed to unhappiness, you can still be happy
Attention, natural-born sourpusses: When it comes to finding happiness for yourself, you have about 40 percent of the equation to work with. Turns out, while 50 percent of happiness is genetic, another 10 percent is based on life circumstances (things like jobs, health and income). So even if you got the mean gene and are sick, broke and unemployed, it's still possible for you to be happy. You just have to make the decision to adopt new behaviors and thought patterns that facilitate joy -- then act on that decision regularly.
Here are some key factors to consider:
- Money: Yes, earning a living is important. But experts say that once you reach the point where you can comfortably pay for basic needs -- i.e., you have enough food, clothing and shelter -- any extra income you may earn won't buy you extra happiness.
- Employment and interests: Interestingly, it’s not necessarily status that makes people happy, but the connection to others and a sense of belonging. It’s about having purpose and feeling useful. There’s also the matter of “flow,” which is enjoying a task so much that you "lose yourself" in it. Some people have this at work (think: welders who are happiest under the hood), and others find their groove through the pursuit of hobbies (cooking, playing basketball, golfing, quilting and so on).
- Competition and forgiveness: It’s so simple, but most of us need reminding: Competing with -- or comparing yourself to -- other people is a losing game, because someone's always going to come out behind (and it will often be you). By contrast, research has shown that having a forgiving attitude has an extremely positive impact on happiness.
- Close relationships: Loving bonds are at the heart of all happy people's lives. This doesn’t mean getting along with everyone you meet; it means feeling connected, understood and loved -- and making the people you care about feel all those things in return.
All of this is not to say that anyone can be happy, because people who fixate on what's bad... can't. “Focus on what's going right, because what we focus on grows,” explains Kate Hanley, mind-body coach and author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Strategies for Serenity. “That means no more complaining, blaming or worrying -- those are all placing your attention on what's wrong. Instead, keep a list of wins or celebrations; any little thing you're happy about goes on it -- and big things too, of course! It's really not about putting blinders on or being Pollyanna. It's about training your mind to pay attention to the good stuff and not take it for granted. It's like changing your diet by focusing on eating more whole foods -- the food you add will naturally crowd out the junk.”
The fact is, "happy" can mean different things to different people. “I think happiness is overrated,” says Tai Sheridan, Ph.D., Zen priest and author of Secrets of True Happiness. “Many of us think we are entitled to be happy, or that happiness is a goal to achieve, which means we set ourselves up for being disappointed with our lives when we aren’t happy. A really happy person might not even think about it; they just have a sense of contentment with their life, and live in a very balanced way. I think it is helpful to think about living a balanced life more than a happy one. Happiness is an outcome of living a kind, loving and beneficial life.”
And that's a happy thought.