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Happiness: Nature vs Nurture

Research suggests that nearly half of our happiness is determined by a set of genes we may or may not be lucky enough to have

By Elena Cartafasla

Image by Verywell/ Jiaqi Zhou

WHITE PLAINS-We all can recall at least one time in our lives that we’ve felt genuine peace and contentment but why is such joy so hard to come by for some people? In recent years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is taking the world by storm, more people are reporting unhappiness and depression in their day-to-day lives. But why? Well, scientists have discovered that some people were simply born to be unhappy due to their genetic makeup. But don’t worry, its more than possible for everyone, despite genetics, to be happy. And here’s how…

Nearly a third of Americans have shown symptoms of clinical anxiety or depression since the rise of the coronavirus pandemic; they are the least happy they’ve been in 50 years. “2020 just fast forwarded a spiritual decay,” said Jonathan Berney. Less than 15% of people report that they are actually ‘very happy’, leaving the other 85% to wonder, why aren’t I happy? The answer to the seemingly complicated question is shockingly simple, you probably just weren't made to be happy.

What is genetic happiness?

Researchers discovered that about 50% of our happiness comes from a gene called 5-HTTLPR, 10% from our lives and the other 40% is up to us. “It’s completely possible to rewire our brains for happiness,” says psychotherapist, Susan Zinn. Our intentional behavior affects our mental wellbeing more than we think and we can choose how happy we are.

“Happiness is significantly determined at birth,” says Zinn. She explains that having a specific variation of the 5-HTTLPR gene can lead to an overall higher life satisfaction rate, but this doesn’t guarantee a content life. Happiness is in your hands, lucky genes or not, everyone has the potential to be happy. Learning to be happy has become a major topic amongst scientists and therapists, so much so that Yale students have the option to take a course on happiness. It has become their most popular class since the 90’s when the class was first introduced. In this class students get expert advice on how they can be happier people. Students that have taken this course have reported to be more content with their lives than their peers who didn’t attend this class.

But what makes us happy?

The answer might be more manageable than you thought, but to answer this question we first need to understand what happiness truly is.

Happiness is a chemical, dopamine, which is released into our brains when we do certain things. One example of this is the feeling of being “In the zone” also known as “flow”. Being “In the zone” gives us feelings of fulfillment. This can mean many different things; it can mean being really focused on a sport or activity you are actively participating in or reading an interesting book that you enjoy. But this isn’t the only way to be happy, studies have found that compassion makes people happier than antidepressants. This means that despite your genetic makeup, feeling for others can change your life, so much so that compassion meditation alters the brain.

Another way to make yourself happy is to take a step back from your life, Japan is the least happy industrial nation because working is such a priority that people literally work themselves to death -there’s even a word for it, karoshi- but a fantastic way to de-stress from everyday life is to count your blessings. Gratefulness is such a powerful tool when it comes to controlling your mind, in fact a young volunteer left his high paying job to volunteer at the Home for the Dying in India. He says he feels happier now than he did before. His happiness doesn’t come from his genes, but rather from how he chooses to live his life.

This isn't to say that you need to drop everything and dedicate your life to others, you can give to a soup kitchen when you can, practice meditation and mindfulness, you can spend time in nature, or whatever you like to do to step out of the “real world” for a moment of inner healing.

In conclusion

Despite how more people are reporting unhappiness and depression in recent years, scientists have discovered that the reason for this may be deeper than originally thought. But if there is still any doubt it should be put to rest as we’ve learned now that we choose to be as happy as we are, and there are a myriad of ways to live a life full of happiness and contentment.

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