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Shiny, happy people: it's in their genes

10 March 2008
Appeared in BioNews 448

British and Australian scientists have found that a person's genes can predispose them towards happiness. Reporting in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers found that genes account for 50 per cent of the factors contributing to an individual's satisfaction with life, with external influences such as health, wealth, relationships and career accounting for the other 50 per cent.

The team, from the University of Edinburgh and the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, conducted a study on more than 900 pairs of twins aged from 25 to 75 years old. Happiness was assessed through a questionnaire designed to determine certain personality traits such as a tendency not to worry excessively, or being sociable or conscientious. Previous research has indicated that these traits contribute towards an overall sense of contentment and well-being. By comparing the results from identical twins (who have exactly the same genes) and non-identical, fraternal twins (who share on average 50 per cent of their genes), the researchers were able to estimate how much genes influence certain characteristics compared to nurture and up-bringing. What they found 'was that the identical twins in a family were very similar in personality and in well-being and, by contrast, the fraternal twins were only around half as similar', said Dr Tim Bates, one of the Edinburgh researchers. He concluded: 'that strongly implicates genes'.

Importantly, the study found that with identical twins, the siblings' similar outlook on life did not depend on their current life circumstances. So even if one twin could be perceived as being more successful than the other, or as living a more desirable lifestyle, they would both nonetheless feel similarly contented with their lot. Their shared genetic make-up inclines them towards similar levels of satisfaction, regardless of differing life situations. Dr Bates explained: 'it is a genetic link to personality, rather than a particular happiness gene...which is partly responsible for our levels of happiness'. The researchers believe that certain genetically-defined characteristics may make a person more or less able to take stressful or difficult times in their stride. Those genetically predisposed towards contentment may find it easier to get through these times and find future happiness. Dr Alexander Weiss, also of the Edinburgh team, summarised: 'although happiness is subject to a wide range of external influences we have found that there is a heritable component of happiness which can be entirely explained by the genetic architecture of personality'.

Although these findings are important, other psychologists have emphasised that it does not mean a person's state of mind is set in stone by their genes. Dr Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing in Glasgow told The Scotsman newspaper: 'genes may be significant, but there are things everyone can do to improve their happiness'.

Genes Hold The Key To How Happy We Are, Scientists Say
ScienceDaily |  6 March 2008
Genes 'play key happiness role'
BBC News Online |  5 March 2008
Happiness can be inherited, research finds
Reuters |  6 March 2008
Happiness isn't what you are, it's who you are
The Scotsman |  6 March 2008
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