March 5, 2008 -- People tend to be hardwired for happiness, and new genetic research may help explain why.
Past studies suggest that while 50% of happiness is due to situational factors like health, relationships, and career, the other 50% is due to genes.
The new research identified largely inherited personality traits that researchers say are responsible for much of the genetic influence on happiness.
Having the right mix of these inherited traits leads to a "reserve" of happiness that can be called on in times of stress, they say.
"Traits like being active, sociable, conscientious, and not being overly anxious are related to happiness -- and these are also traits that are inherited," researcher Timothy Bates, PhD, tells WebMD.
Genes and the Pursuit of Happiness
Bates and University of Edinburgh colleagues Alexander Weiss, PhD, and Michelle Luciano, PhD, have studied the science of happiness for the past 15 years.
Their latest study involved more than 900 identical and non-identical twin pairs who completed a standardized questionnaire designed to identify personality traits.
Since identical twins share all the same genes and non-identical twins do not, the researchers say they were able to determine the influence of genes on the personality traits and on happiness.
"Together with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is a core human desire," Weiss notes in a news release. "Although happiness is subject to a wide range of external influence, we have found that there is a heritable component of happiness which can be entirely explained by genetic architecture of personality."
The study appears in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Achieving Happiness by Setting Goals
The findings do not mean that people who don't inherit happiness traits are destined to lead miserable lives, Bates says.
Bates, Weiss, and Luciano are studying whether adopting the traits associated with happiness can make people happy. Early findings suggest it can.
Since setting and achieving goals is a common trait in conscientious people, and conscientiousness is linked to happiness, study participants were asked to set five achievable goals that could be accomplished in a week.
"As soon as people started working toward these goals their happiness scores went up," Bates says. "When they were no longer working toward a goal their happiness scores dropped."
So while some people are genetically predisposed to being goal-oriented and others are not, the research suggests that it is the behavior that drives happiness, whether or not it comes naturally.
People who stay physically active and socially connected also tend to be happier, so adopting these traits is important for people who are naturally introverted, Bates says.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
The research builds on work done over 20 years suggesting a clear role for genes in happiness.
Situational factors do matter, Bates says, but they don't tend to affect happiness long term.
Studies consistently show that rich people are not much happier than poor people, and even people with severe physical disabilities tend to find happiness over time, he says.
"This is what led to the thinking that certain people must have some reserve that allows them to remain at a fairly stable level of happiness despite their situation," he adds.
The research also suggests that happiness is tied to a sense of responsibility and achievement.
"The way to pursue happiness is surprisingly virtuous," Bates concludes. "A sense of humility, working for the things you want, counting your blessings, being sociable, and staying active all play a part."