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Healthy Aging

Happiness: Is It All In the Genes?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 10/26/2010
Last Updated: 11/12/2018

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Some people are naturally happy people. It’s like they’re born that way. I’m sure you know one or two – or maybe you’re blessed to be one, yourself. Their moods are generally upbeat and positive. They smile effortlessly. They shrug off negative, sad emotions as effortlessly and naturally as wiping away a speck of dust.

And what of the others? The people who struggle with happiness? Well, I can tell you about that first-hand. For me, being happy takes effort. It’s not that I don’t feel it or am not capable of it; it’s just that I have to seek it out; try hard at it. Being introspective does that. So does being like a sponge and soaking in all the energy around me– both the positive AND the negative.

While researching happiness, I’ve come upon some really interesting stuff. One is that scientists have actually found a happiness gene. This accounts for the naturally happy people I often envy. This gene variant (they have inherited two copies of a gene, rather than one, and are referred to as “LL” carriers) helps them dwell on all that is good rather than all that is bad. This gene variant, , is responsible for the subjects taking longer to recognize negative images over neutral ones; they may simply be subliminally drawn to the more positive images. They don’t have to be told to “look on the bright side;” instead, they naturally gravitate toward it.

And guess what people who have a short variant of this gene experience? Right. Negativity. Anxiety. All the things that make for stress and depression. All the things that can make for a compromised immune system.

Which leads me into the next finding. Though obvious, it’s a good reminder of why it’s important to try to be happy: Happiness helps people stay healthy.

A found that happier people have healthier levels of key body chemicals than do people who have to work hard at feeling happy. One of those chemicals is cortisol, that nasty stress hormone. Why is it nasty? High levels of it are linked to conditions like type ll diabetes and hypertension. Through testing saliva samples taken at 8 different points during a working day after being given mildly stressful tasks, scientists found that the happier subjects had lower cortisol levels during the day. And men enjoyed the added benefit of a lower heart rate (why women didn’t is not understood).

Happier people also had lower levels of a blood protein called fibrinogen, which makes blood sticky. High concentrations of this protein can be a predictor of future coronary problems.

So, maybe those of us with the short end of the stick – er, I mean, gene - can be happier. After all, it seems to me that happiness is partially about the way we react to our environment.  

Check back later this week when I share easy to follow, common-sense ways to be happy, which I eagerly learned during my recent weekend eye-opening workshop at the with acclaimed teacher , one of the most popular lecturers at Harvard.

I came away with so much helpful and valuable information - and I’m happy to spread the word.

Comments

So fascinating - and not surprising. Genes control so much.

This was fascinating. Thanks for doing all this research. My son has the happiness gene. My daughter, not so much. What is really interesting is how hard it is for him to understand her depression. He's happy without making any effort at it.

It always amazes me that two children, both from the same parent, can be polar opposites. And it is so hard for people who are always happy to understand how someone can be depressed - they often blame the person her/himself, when that person's reality is that they just ARE sad and not happy all the time.

This certainly helps explain the "happiness set point" I've seen talked about in various bits of research. Interesting!

This is fascinating--a 'happiness' gene? I can't wait to hear more. I have a friend who always seems to be happy. I asked her how she did it and she said she just decides to be happy.

Yup, it is often a conscious decision. That's what I am going to write about next - there ARE ways we can decide to be happy. It is a choice. Isn't that good to know??

I could not agree more. Though it is hard to ALWAYS be happy, it makes a huge difference in how you live your life in a positive way. Live life to the fullest!

Very interesting! My nighttime reading lately has been The Happiness Project. I read it last year for the first time and it made me happy!

I've been thinking a lot about happiness, probably because of the buzz around Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project AND because a friend has a book coming out about happiness in marriage (Project Happily Ever After: How to Save Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters.) I DO think there is a lot you can do to alter your genetic predisposition, including to be more conscientious and live a more deliberate life. I wrote about that in this post:

Jennifer Margulis @ Mothering Outside the Lines

Hi Sheryl, It's great to read your post on happiness and it's especially useful that you included studies to back it all up. It's amazing the wealth of scientific evidence that people who are happy are healthier. Nice post.
Jeanine

I wish that happiness came easy to me these days,but it doesnt. I have try so hard. I am going through alot of negative things and i know that is a big part of it, but its hard to fix my life . I need my spouse to be 100% committed to going on this journey with me,,, how long should I wait.?

Tammy, Thanks for writing. I'm really sorry to hear that you are going through tough times. Have you sought marriage counseling? I understand how it can be difficult to do this alone without your spouse being on board. What I've come to realize is that happiness is not a quick fix - it takes a lot of work - but it can be achieved. I do hope you and your spouse will be able to find some sort of help that will put you on a better path. There's no time limit - but why not make today the day you start your new effort, together?

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