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Made (un)happy? The genetic and epigenetic factors of happiness and well-being

Made (un)happy? The genetic and epigenetic factors of happiness and well-being

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Richard Sima. Originally submitted for Mind, Brain, and Behavior (Science of Happiness) at Harvard University, with lecturer Nancy Etcoff in the category of Psychology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Richard Sima. Originally submitted for Mind, Brain, and Behavior (Science of Happiness) at Harvard University, with lecturer Nancy Etcoff in the category of Psychology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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Made (un)happy? The genetic and epigenetic factors of happiness and well-being
Our genetics play a substantial role in shaping our lives and our happiness. But do our genesestablish our happiness destinies? Is there still room for freedom in finding happiness separatefrom the genetic cards that we are dealt at birth? To begin answering these questions, this paper
will examine the current research on the genetic factors that influence one’s propensity for 
happiness as well as the possible contributions by epigenetic modifications. The geneticinfluence on happiness will be covered first, building the foundation for the set point theory onhappiness based upon evidence for the stability of both happiness and genetic factors; the geneticbaselines for happiness differ across people, allowing for some individuals to maintain happiermoods more easily than others who might be required to work more for their happiness.Furthermore, shared genetic traits may underlie happiness and personality, which is in turn a key
contributor to one’s happiness. Specifically, certain personality t
raits such as extraversion andneuroticism are strongly correlated with well-being and have common genes underlying well-being. These personality traits may also help us cope with adverse events and experiences.There is also increasing potential for future studies on specific genes involved in humanhappiness, beginning with the recent discovery that links the 5-HTT gene encoding for serotonintransporter as a
“happiness gene”.
However, environmental factors still play a significant role in
determining one’s happiness:
intentional activity and goal-choosing have been found tosuccessfully increase happiness in the short-term and changes in environmental factors mayconsequently result in the relative impact of genes and environment. In addition, the expressionof our genetics may also be subject to change. There is an extensive literature on epigeneticmodifications regarding emotionality and mood disorders which may be relevant to futurestudies on happiness and how experience and environmental factors may influence themanifestations of one
s genetic traits. Finally, the paper will conclude with the importance of personal involvement on the projec
t of one’s happiness, emphasizing the power we all still have
to become happier; despite the facticity of our genetic and epigenetic make-up, we can stillengage our own narrative and write our own fate in regards to happiness. Indeed, it is ourresponsibility to do so.
If you asked the average person on the street a few decades ago, “How much are you in
control of your own
happiness?” you’d probably get
quizzical expressions and firm declarations
in reply: “I’m
completely in control of my happiness
what kind of question is that?”
However,in recent years, the importance of genetics
the proverbial hand of cards
we’re dealt at the
beginning of our lives
has been revealed to influence even personal attributes fundamentally a
 part of one’s self 
-narrative and identity, including happiness. As DNA structure co-discoverer
James Watson once said, “We used to think our fate was in the stars.
Now we know, in largemeasure, our fate is in our genes.
But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the otherextreme
are we either condemned or blessed by the facticity of our genetic code to either a lifeof misery and discontent or one of easy bliss and satisfaction? Or is there still room for personal
involvement in one’s lifelong project for happiness and well
Genetic heredity and influence on happiness
The application of behavioral genetics to the study of well-being began relatively recentlyand reflects an overall paradigm shift within mental health research in focusing more on thepositive indicators of mental health, as opposed to exclusively on the negative (Nes 2010). Thusfar, a few behavior genetic studies have been applied to the field of positive mental health, andmost are based on self-reported measures of satisfaction with life and subjective well-being(SWB). Despite the limited number of studies, the findings are nonetheless robust andconsistent, based on data of thousands of twins raised together and apart. Twin studies areimportant in discerning the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors on traits andbehaviors that may influence happiness. Monozygotic, or identical, twins share nearly 100% of their genetic code, meaning that most of the variation found between them is most likely due totheir unique experiences. Dizygotic, or fraternal, twins share only about 50% of their geneticpolymorphisms, but tend to share many of the same environmental factors if raised together. Bycomparing the similarities between monozygotic and dizygotic twins that are raised apart ortogether, studies can delineate the sources of variance due to genes, shared environments, andnonshared environments. From these types of studies, the overall effect of genetic influences on
happiness and well-being are usually found to account for 35-50% of heritability in globalhappiness measures (Lykken and Tellegen 1996; Schnittker 2008).
Lykken and Tellegen’s
(1996) seminal work on the genetic heredity of baseline happinesswas based on a longitudinal study on middle-aged twins born in Minnesota between 1936 and1955. They measured happiness using the Well Being scale of a Multidimensional PersonalityQuestionnaire, which is a survey that asks participants to rate themselves on questions such as
“Taking the good with the bad, how happy and conte
nt are you on the average now compared
with other people?”
.This questionnaire was administered once to 1380 pairs of twins raised together, whichfound that the correlations on the Well Being scale were 0.44 for monozygotic twins and 0.08 fordizygotic twins and the broad heritability of Well Being to be 44% to 52%. In contrast, sharedrearing environment
including socioeconomic status, educational attainment, family income,marital status and indicant of religious commitment -
couldn’t account for more than 3% of the
variance in Well Being. The remaining variance is attributed non-shared environment, whichincludes unique life experiences and everything not shared by twins brought up together.To look at what factors may influence happiness over time, the same questionnaire wasgiven to the subset of twins ten years later and a cross-time, cross-twin correlation between theWell Being scores was calculated. This correlation was 0.4 for monozygotic twins compared to0.07 for dizygotic twins; the cross-time correlation averaged to 0.5. Thus, the study concludes,
one’s future happiness is influenced 80%
(= 0.4/0.5)
 by one’s genes, and the authors end the paper proclaiming that “trying to
be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and therefore is
(Lykken and Tellegen 1996). A later longitudinal study on Norwegian twinscorroborates these results (Nes et al., 2006). In this study, Nes et al. analyzed questionnaire data

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