This article was published in our newsletter. Sign up here.
You know the surge of happiness you feel when your boss at work praises you? Well, this is because your boss’s praise causes “happy hormones” to be released in the brain. Praise gives rise to momentary feelings of happiness, but can also make us more satisfied long-term because it motivates us to perform better. Many people also find that regular relaxation exercises such as yoga or autogenic training helps them feel better because they reduce stress levels. And last but not least, people are happy when they live in societies in which – in short – wealth is distributed as widely as possible, in which the same laws apply to all, and in which people stick together while at the same time allowing everyone to find happiness in their own individual way.
International project to research the happiness gene
So are happiness and satisfaction solely a question of attitude, lifestyle and political decisions? Not quite. Scientists have also discovered that there are genetic factors associated with life satisfaction and happiness. The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC), a group of over 90 research centres in Europe, North America and Australia, has analysed the genetic data and survey responses of nearly 300,000 people. In Germany, eleven universities and research institutions in Berlin, Bonn, Lübeck, Munich and Münster are also involved.
In the genetic make-up of the test subjects, the 178 researchers involved in the project identified genetic variations, some associated with well-being and others linked to an unstable personality or depression. They also found interactions between the genetic variants that make us happy and those that make us unhappy.
Life satisfaction, health and genetic make-up
“Psychological wellbeing is largely determined by our environment, though to some extent also by genetic factors. Until now, it was virtually unknown which genetic factors play a role here”, says Professor Gert G. Wagner from the German Institute for Economic Research Berlin, one of the international consortium’s cooperation partners. Germany contributed the data from its BASE II long-term study to the international research project. To this end, research institutions and universities have been collaborating since 2009: at regular intervals, they ask more than 2,000 adults in Berlin about their life satisfaction, subject them to a medical examination and analyse their genetic make-up.
The search for the happiness gene continues
The study has proven that life satisfaction is also linked to a person’s genetic make-up, and that certain genetic variants play a role in this context. As yet, however, the statistical analyses only allow the consortium’s researchers to attribute a fraction of the differences in the test subjects’ levels of wellbeing to the genetic variants that have been identified. Before we can more precisely define the extent to which genes are responsible for our happiness, hundreds of thousands if not millions more people will need to be surveyed and examined.