The growth of neuroscience and genetics has seen an increasing number of articles stating that the part of the brain that does this or that, or the gene for this or that has been discovered. Happiness has not escaped these studies.

Here is one such article I found in The Telegraph “Born miserable – some people genetically programmed to be negative.” Wow. I hope I am not that person! After reading that article you might simply think; no wonder I’m miserable, it’s in my genes (and hence I cannot do anything about it). 

And that leads me to an interesting article I found just the other day where the question was asked “is happiness a choice?”…

These authors point out that the kind of think represented by the article in The Telegraph is summed up in the Happiness set-point theory (which was very popular in the 1990s) which simply states that we all have a genetic predisposition to a certain degree of happiness, and regardless of circumstance, you would always return to this specific point. If, for instance, you won $1,000,000 you might be happier for a year or two but would eventually return to your genetically pre-determined levels of happiness.

However, research by Bruce Headey (psychologist at Melbourne University) and his colleagues suggests that happiness is far more dynamic than the equilibrium espoused by the happiness set-point theory. As Headey states,“individual choices — about one’s partner, working hours, social participation and lifestyle — make substantial and permanent changes to reported happiness levels. For example, doing more or fewer paid hours of work than you want, or exercising regularly, can have just as much impact on life satisfaction as having an extroverted personality.”

Jerome Kagan (Harvard University psychologist) believes that happiness should be seen as being two-dimensional; “two distinct dimensions of happiness: everyday emotional experience (an assessment of how you feel at the moment) and life evaluation (a judgment of how satisfied you are with your life). It’s the difference between “how often did you smile yesterday?” and “how does your life compare to the best possible life you can imagine?”

Looking at happiness in this way is useful because it allows us to include the genetic component but also overlay genetics with environment and more importantly, choice. Our genetics accounts for our basic temperament. Temperament is the biological component of our personality. Temperament is evident in childhood, and Kagan found that some children differ in whether the extent to which they feel happy, sad, worried etc. They say that genetics loads the gun but the environment fires it. You cannot really change your temperament but you can how you think about, or evaluate your life.

Smiling all the time might not be your thing, but that does not mean you’re unhappy – and miserable genetics do not mean you think life sucks. Our overall evaluation of life goes beyond our minute by minute feelings of happiness. Happiness – at least the life satisfaction variety is more about choice than genetics – but then we need to be careful about what we choose to evaluate our lives on. But tend to evaluate our lives based on what where we expect to be at our life stage, relative circumstances and often relative to our peers (the Joneses).

Are we going to choose, as Nigel Marsh says in his TED talk on work-life balance, the “moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins” or are we going to choose more differently? What would life satisfaction mean to you?

First published in my personal blog.