Are some people are born happier than others? The short answer to this is yes; they are. But today I want to give you the long answer. To establish to what extent genetic predisposition impacts on our level of happiness, researchers conducted various studies on twins. Note that identical twins share 100% of their genetic material, and fraternal twins and siblings share 50%1. Scientists compared the wellbeing of identical and non-identical twins alongside their socioeconomic, educational, marital, and religious status. From this it was possible to calculate the effect of genetic influence.
The typical finding is that among identical twins, the wellbeing of one twin is highly indicative of the other’s, even if they were brought up apart from each other. Lykken and Tellegen, for example, tested identical twins at around age 20 and then 10 years later. When examining the wellbeing scores, they crossed the twins across time so that Twin A’s score aged 20 was compared with Twin B’s aged 30. Among non-identical twins and siblings the scores did not relate to each other; their similarities were less than 1%. Yet among identical twins, strong similarities were observed. If the identical twins were raised apart since infancy, they had slightly larger variances in wellbeing, which scientists attribute to their different home environments and life experiences. However, these differences had disappeared by the time the identical twins reached middle age. From studies such as these, scientists deduced that inherited genetic factors determine adult happiness by about 50%.2
Sonja Lyubomirsky calls our genetic predisposition to wellbeing the happiness set-point. This set-point is fixed, she writes, and at this stage, nobody knows how to change or influence it. Lyubomirsky stresses that even after major life changes, such as a having a car accident or meeting a new partner, we tend to revert to it. Whilst positive and negative life experiences impact on how we feel, over time their effects lessen and we return to our set-points.3
My much loved, late grandmother Irene luckily left the family a 43 page memoir. Working as an educator in homes for delinquent boys in France during World War II, she fought back German officers who wanted to evict them from their castle, single-handedly fed 70 boys a day, and at one point was responsible for 170 boys together with her husband. She bore two children in between air strikes and hovering in cellars, and had a third in Paris just after the end of the war. The youngest son, my uncle Henry, used to meet his dad after work at the bus station. One day 3.5 year old Henry came home without his dad; it was pay day, and my grandfather had absconded, not to be seen again by his family for over twenty years. My penniless grandmother took to caring for four babies and toddlers, working from 6am to 1-2am so she had clean dry nappies and clothes for them all. She frequently had to send her own children to faraway friends and relatives so she could cope, which broke everyone’s hearts. In that time she also saved the life of a very weak little baby boy whose gypsy parents were in jail. Her life was devoted to helping others; she was strong and sustained by her faith in God. She was not often sad, despite the hardship she lived through.
My other grandmother, Martha, died of breast cancer when I was four. She was a teacher who loved literature, music and handcraft. Martha also liked to help those in need. At one point she looked after refugees, and at another she successfully petitioned for an indoor pool at a disabled home, to spare the disabled swimmers the staring they were subjected to at the public pool. Her marriage was stable but not very happy. In her fourties she started to suffer from depression, for which there was no treatment other than electric shocks. Due to the stigma, the family kept her condition a secret. Her children were very loyal to her and would sit with her when she was depressed, to make sure she would not harm herself.
Why do life adversities and stress trigger depression in some individuals and not in others? This question was pursued by a team of research scientists in a New Zealand study, who assessed 847 infants from birth until they were 26. They tested variations in the 5-HTTLPR gene, which is part of the serotonin transporter region, and found that the short version is less effective at promoting serotonin than the long one. About half of the studied babies, i.e. 51%, had the short version of the gene, and these individuals later were more likely to suffer depressive symptoms after experiencing stressful life events.4 The study confirmed the logical expectation that the more stress and trauma an individual encountered, the more likely he or she would feel depressed. The remarkable finding, however, was that depression would only result among those who carried the short version of the 5-HTTLPR gene, even if their stress and misfortune was suffered when they were children! Lyubomirsky points out that depression appears to need two ingredients in order to be triggered: 1. the vulnerability due to genetic predisposition, and 2. stress.5
It seems that my grandmother Martha had the “depression gene” and my grandmother Irene didn’t. My mother is adamant that I was a very upbeat and happy child. Yet I also had many sad upheavals and hardships in my childhood, and remember crying every single day until I was 12. If I reflect in depth on how I felt for most of my life, I can sense my set-point.
How did you feel as a child? Were you serious, frightened, carefree, full of mischief and fun? Or did you frequently feel angry and disdainful of those around you? How do you think your parents, siblings or friends would have described you? Were they correct or did they miss what you were about?
Sadly I think my mother is wrong and that my set-point is low. This, however, provides me with the opportunity of sharing with you how you can be happy despite a dodgy set-point. How do you do it? You can begin by looking back over my last ten blog posts and take up every activity or attitude suggested. The fact is that reading about wellbeing will not change a thing until you decide to practice the tools that promote it.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015