What Makes People Happy? Genetics vs. Circumstances

From a lecture series presented by Professor Mark Leary, Ph.D.

What Makes People Happy? Life circumstances have much less of an impact on how happy you are than most people imagine. In fact, only about 10 percent of your happiness is due to your life circumstances. But if only 10 percent of happiness is due to people’s circumstances, what’s the other 90 percent due to?

happy lady and child on lawn for article on what makes people happy

Happiness and Your Genetic Makeup

Research shows that people’s genetic makeup is responsible for about 50 percent of their happiness.

Genes play a very important role in people’s personalities, including how they tend to respond to what happens to them. Our genes determine the structure and activity of our brains. Some lucky people’s brains are structured in ways that promote positive emotions. And some of us have brains that respond more easily to negative emotions.

Learn more: Solving Psychological Mysteries

Many studies have conclusively shown that about 50 percent of the variability that we see in the degree to which people experience positive and negative emotions is due to genetic factors.

So, for example, research shows that identical twins are more similar in their level of happiness—or unhappiness—than regular brothers and sisters. And that’s true even if the twins have been separated at birth and raised by different families. Their identical genes create identical brains that make them similar in how happy—or unhappy—they are.

…identical twins are more similar in their level of happiness—or unhappiness—than regular brothers and sisters.

They won’t be identical in happiness, of course, because genetic influences account for only 50 percent of happiness. But identical twins are certainly more similar emotionally than other siblings.

And, you can see inborn differences in happiness in very young infants, long before their circumstances have affected them very much. Some babies are naturally more bubbly and happy, and other babies are more unhappy and fussy.

Learn more: Why Do We Have Emotions?

A Baseline of Happiness

The best way to think about these genetic influences is to think of yourself as having some typical baseline of happiness. Good events will temporarily increase your happiness, and bad events will make you unhappy. But after those events have passed and nothing particularly good or bad is going on in your life, how happy are you? You will return again and again to your own typical baseline, almost as if it’s some kind of a set point.

In all likelihood you can’t really change this baseline or resting level of happiness. But that doesn’t mean that those of us whose brains lead us more toward unhappiness can’t be happy; we just have to work harder at it.

How Our Behaviour Factors In

But even after we account for the 50 percent of happiness that’s due to genetic factors and the 10 percent that’s due to our life circumstances, there’s still 40 percent remaining. That 40 percent is due to our behavior—what we do and how we think, our intentional activities. People who are happier do things differently than people who are less happy.

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And the good news is that research suggests that if we all do things the way that happy people do, we’ll be happier too. There are many different ways to be unhappy, but happy people are alike in many ways.

…research suggests that if we all do things the way that happy people do, we’ll be happier too.

Happy people differ from unhappy people both in what they actually do, and in how they do what they do. For example, in general, research shows that happy people spend more time with their friends and family than unhappy people do, and happy people also nurture and enjoy those relationships more.

So, there’s something about having social connections and close relationships that usually promotes happiness. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that simply forcing yourself to spend more time with your family is necessarily going to make you happy, unless you approach it in the right way.

Subjective Well-Being

To understand this point, I want us to use a different word than happiness for the positive emotional state that I think we all seek. I want to use a different word because happiness doesn’t quite capture what I think most of us really want. When people imagine a really happy person, they often think of someone smiling or laughing who is experiencing a surge of pleasure because something good has happened to them.

Learn more: Why Do We Forget?

But, I think that what most people want more than occasional episodes of happiness is an overriding sense of contentment and pleasure—a sense of well-being that goes a little bit deeper than happiness per se. Of course, people want moments of happiness, and that’s fine, but no one can sustain happy feelings all the time. But people can have a long-lasting sense of contentment, satisfaction with themselves and with life, peace of mind, and general positive feelings.

Let’s call this sort of positive emotion, subjective well-being to distinguish it from momentary happiness that’s caused by something happening in particular, such as getting a raise or winning an award.

People who generally live with a sense of high subjective well-being differ from people who report lower subjective well-being in the degree to which their lives are characterized by eudaimonia. I suspect that you might not be familiar with the concept of eudaimonia, but it is very useful in understanding happiness and subjective well-being. Eudaimonia can be defined as living one’s life in a way that focuses on things that are intrinsically important for human well-being.

Eudaimonia can be defined as living one’s life in a way that focuses on things that are intrinsically important for human well-being.

Intrinsic Importance

If I asked you to make a list of all of your goals—things that you wanted to get in the next year or two—you might list many different things. You might want to get a raise, want to lose weight, want to achieve some goal at work, want to spend more time with your children or your friends, want to get a bigger house, want to retire, whatever. All of these goals are fine, but some of them are more intrinsically important to your well-being.

By intrinsically important, I mean that some of these goals are pursued for their own sake rather than to get something else. Spending more time with your children or friends is probably an intrinsic goal. If you want to spend more time with somebody, it’s probably because you want to spend more time with them, not so that you can obtain some other goal.

By intrinsically important, I mean that some of these goals are pursued for their own sake rather than to get something else.

On the other hand, making money is not an intrinsic goal. You don’t want to make money just to have piles of money. You want money because it will allow you to obtain or to do other things. Money isn’t intrinsically rewarding in the same way that you may find it intrinsically rewarding to spend time with people you love, or to play golf, or to paint.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “Most men (and I would add, women) lead lives of quiet desperation.” Life situations and bad experiences contribute to their desperation and unhappiness, of course, but not nearly as much as most people assume.

We need to understand that our day-to-day happiness and subjective well-being depend far more—at least four times as much—on how we approach life than on what life brings our way. It’s this understanding that may open the door to greater happiness and life satisfaction for all of us.

Keep Reading:
The Psychology of Happiness—Does Money Make People Happy?
The Meaning of “The Meaning of Life”
Behavioral Economics: How “Triggers” Affect Your Decisions

From the course Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior taught by Professor Mark Leary, Ph.D.