What Makes Us Happy?

 Happiness is a subjective emotion and often correlated with the quality of life of individuals as each person has different goals and values. As a matter of fact, happiness has been defined as a “cognitive evaluation of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride) and negative emotions (pain, sadness)”. Therefore, each individual perceives and measures his/her happiness differently; there is no universal measurement of happiness.

Yet, it can be presumed that there are multiple factors which equally influence people’s emotional state: physical well-being, financial and social position, as well as age. On the other hand, recent studies suggest that genetics would also be a part of the big “puzzle” and it can have a significant effect on an individual’s happiness level. In order to have a better insight of how much genetics can determine one’s happiness, statistical data indicates that 50% of people’s happiness level is determined by genes. The remaining 50% is structured by 10 % of external factors (e.g. life experiences, age, religion, etc.) and 40% of cognitive and behavioral activities (personal choices, career, attitudes etc.). But since subjective well-being (aka happiness) involves multiple factors, different researchers reject the concept that 50% of people’s happiness is due to their genetics as it is believed that genetic variations have only 8.4% impact on people’s happiness.

The reason why researchers had been focusing on understanding the role of genetics in emotions is due to the difference of the cross-national subjective well-being; in other words, some populations are happier than the others. Although developed countries like United States of America, Denmark, France or the United Kingdom do not present a low economic situation like Vietnam or Panama, the level of happiness within the Western countries is notably reduced than the one within the populations of the less developed countries. This might indicate that external factors like finances, social position and education are not always the reasons for one’s happiness.

As such, researchers wanted to understand what really determines happiness and it seems that the explanation resides in the brain. De Neve and his colleagues’ research (2012) aimed to investigate if there is a particular gene which might have an influence on the subjective well-being (aka happiness). The results indicated that the serotonin-transporter gene 5-HTTLPR, as well as the neurotransmitter serotonin, are involved in the activation of negative emotions such as depression or stress, but at the same time, an increased level of serotonin can influence the positive emotional state of an individual. Moreover, the changes in serotonin’s neurotransmission can influence the mental health and personality of people. However, De Neve and his colleagues stressed the idea that genetics might play a small role as far as life satisfaction is concerned.

Similar data, reveal another gene which might be responsible for the emotional level changes. Apparently, individuals who self-reported as being very happy or unhappy presented different percentages of the A-allele gene in the anandamide substance which increases the sense of pleasure and decreases the sense of pain.

Although these results indicate a notable change at the biological level, it is difficult to attribute genetics a major influence (50% as it was suggested) when there is a wide range of external factors which can highly have an impact on one’s happiness. Regardless of the suggestions made about genetics’ role in people’s emotions, different researchers debate the theory and stress the importance of religion and social support as being few of the main factors that build people’s happiness.

Statistical data from 2016 indicates a significant difference between religious and non-religious people where the religious individuals registered a higher level of life satisfaction and happiness than atheists  The underlying reasons of happiness of religious people is the social support and social activities within the religious communities which apparently seem to improve people’s self-esteem and their perception about their life quality. The influence of such elements like social support and activities only highlights the fact that happiness can highly be reinforced by social skills and friendships rather than by genes.

Furthermore, sociologists suggest that the quality of the social relations can improve or affect individuals’ mental health, physical and emotional well-being. Additionally to these findings, the young public claims that “friends, satisfied basic needs, family and no problems” are considered as essential elements of happiness.

Other factors that might influence a person’s happiness are finances and age, yet it cannot be said that they have a major influence since nor a successful career nor age can highly affect the emotional well-being of people.


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