Is Happiness Determined By Our Genetics?

By: Mike Mahler

“Research now confirms what common sense has always told us: Happy people live longer, enjoy healthier lives, achieve more success, and maintain stronger relationships than the chronically unhappy.”
Liz Seymour

Recently, on a business trip to Dallas to do a kettle bell workshop with my friend Lisa Shaffer, I read an interesting article in, of all places, US Airways magazine. The author, Liz Seymour, wrote on the topic of happiness. I expected a patronizing bit about forced positive thinking providing the key to happiness but, to my pleasant surprise, Seymour’s article turned out to be the most fascinating I’ve read in a long time.

Definition Of Happiness

How do we define happiness? According to Ed Diener, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, happiness is a combination of “life satisfaction, positive emotions, and low levels of negative emotions.”

In other words, people who are happy genuinely enjoy their lives and genuinely feel good most of the time. Notice I’m using the word genuinely to distinguish people who are happy from those who merely think happy thoughts there’s a big difference.

People who force positive thinking are faking, while happy people are naturally positive: they see the world as full of opportunities rather than fear and sorrow. I’m sure the women reading this agree there’s a big difference between genuinely feeling it…and faking it. No need to elaborate further, at least I hope not.

We all have the pursuit of happiness as our goal. At the end of the day every goal we pursue reinforces this end goal of becoming happier: we want to make more money because we think it will make us happier; we want to find a life partner and get married because we think it will make us happier; we want to lose fat and look better because we think it will make us happier.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods that happiness comes from changing external conditions. Unfortunately, achieving real happiness is more complicated than simply changing the externals. According to Seymour, “…happiness is determined by a combination of genetic set points, conditions, and voluntary activities.”

Genetic Set Points:

Let’s start by looking at genetic set points: yes, like other talents, such as intelligence and athletic prowess, a happy disposition can be genetically predetermined.

A genetic set point is a factor involved with being happy. Just as some people easily learn calculus, or have a natural ability to run fast, some people find it easy to be happy. On the other hand, just as some people have a hard time learning mathematics or participating in sports, some people have a hard time being happy. For these people happiness takes an effort, just like the effort of academics, or getting in shape, while those with luckier genes may be happier, stay in shape easier, and get better grades. So, if you’re miserable, feel free to blame your parents for your lame genetics–and better luck next time!

Lame joking aside, I find the genetic factor in happiness very interesting since I’d never thought of happiness as something genetically determined. How much of a role do genetics play in our happiness?

According to studies, genes determine fifty percent of our proclivity for happiness–or for melancholy. While this doesn’t mean you’ll be doomed to a life of misery and despair if you weren’t blessed with happy genes, it does mean you’ll have to work harder to achieve happiness.

Yes, it’s unfair, but you already know life is unfair–after all, the last season of my favorite show, 24, was lame, and if life were fair it would’ve been excellent, making me a happy camper. Instead, it was lame and I’ve been miserable ever since. Oh well, at least the last season of my other favorite show, The Shield, was pretty good. So, can I blame my feelings on my genetic set point? No.


While our individual genetic set points play a tremendous role in whether we’re happy or not, they’re not the only factor. Conditions do play a role but, according to studies, not as big a role as we’ve been led to believe: conditions make up about eight to fifteen percent of happiness. Thus, if you think you’re depressed because you still rent, have a few pounds to lose, or aren’t as strong as you’d like to be…think again.

Liz Seymour writes, “…variables such as age, education, health, income, personal appearance, and even climate are ineffective at overriding our genetically determined set point.”

In other words, if your genetic set point favors misery, making a lot of money or even getting a rock hard body won’t tip the happiness scales in your favor. Sure, you may temporarily feel better following an achievement or gaining some material possession, such as a house, but within a year you’ll be back where you were before the changes occurred.

Ironically, most of us spend our lives trying to change conditions in order to be happy, never realizing why it’s not working. Some of you may find this stuff hard to believe, after all, how could one not be happier after becoming a millionaire? Moreover, how could someone who is happy not become miserable after suffering a terrible disease?

According to Seymour, studies of lottery winners, on one hand, and people who became paraplegic from an accident, on the other, show clearly that both groups returned to their previous level of happiness within less than a year.

In other words: if you’re already miserable, your misery will continue even if you become a millionaire but if you’re happy in general, even upon becoming a paraplegic, you’ll eventually return to happiness after an adaptation phase. The old saying, that people do not change, is truer than we think.

This is why it’s difficult to achieve happiness via changing external conditions. Our brains are good at adapting to situations, good or bad. This isn’t so hard to understand, think of any important goal you’ve achieved–remember how anti-climactic it felt? This is the problem with being overly attached to end results: we place too much pressure on achievement changing our mindset.

When I first got into weight training, I used to dream about being able to bench press 315 pounds; though eventually I worked up to bench-pressing 315 for seven reps–how did I feel? Great…for a while, then I adapted and returned to the same mindset I had before my strength gain. The much-anticipated change that came with the achievement of my goal didn’t last. Eventually, like everyone else, I wanted more.

Of course, no achievement will ever be enough., which is why people unconsciously stay in the anticipation phase and avoid achieving their goals.

The anticipation phase is like being a child on the night before Christmas: fantasizing about all the wonderful gifts you’ll receive brings more pleasure than the actual experience of opening your gifts. Unfortunately, remaining in the anticipation phase is delusional and won’t bring about real happiness; if nothing else, it’ll get old and no longer carry the same level of pleasure.

Does this mean we shouldn’t bother with goals? Of course not! Goal-less-ness is the path of the cop out. People who claim that everything is illusion are unmotivated people looking to avoid growth and change. The key is setting goals and achieving them for the sake of doing it.

According to the ancient Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, we’ve a right to our actions but not the results of those actions: our reward is the process and experience rather than any form of attainment. Goal achievements are road signs that we’re heading in the right direction and ready to grow into our next phase. Without achieving goals, we’re doomed to repeating our same experiences over and over again.

According to John Elliot, author of The New Science Of Working Less To Accomplish More, we perform better when we’re fully in the moment and unattached to outcome: life’s fullest moments can be reduced to those moments in which we’re fully present with no thoughts of past or future. These are the moments in which we’re fully alive and time seems to stand still. Clearly, enjoying life moment-to-moment, rather than persisting with fearful thoughts, enhances our genetic set points.

Everyone wants to be happy whether they realize it or not and even if they don’t want to admit it. We need to realize that happiness isn’t a result of focusing on conditions. We need to focus on enhancing our genetic set points in order to stack the odds of personal happiness in our favor. If you’re not happy making $50,000 you won’t be happy making $250,000: the problem is within our minds, not external conditions.


Fortunately, we don’t have to lie back and accept the genetic set point we’ve been dealt. Just as anyone can get smarter and build stronger muscles, so can we develop stronger genetic set points for happiness. Seymour writes that one option is taking drugs–after all, we’re a pill-popping society and there exist pills for every problem under the sun, including a poor outlook on life.

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, such as Prozac and Zoloft, prolong the action of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that’s helpful with mood and is adequately produced by people who are naturally happy. For people with chemical imbalances, I can see how these drugs are a godsend.

Some people really benefit from these drugs or by supplementing the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, which create serotonin in the brain. However, taking drugs or even nutritional supplements isn’t a solution for everyone. In fact, taking such drugs may be a way of avoiding the problem: our actions must lead to sustained improvements, not drug dependence.

Handling Stress:

If not drugs, then what? One, we need to learn to better handle stress. People with natural stress management skills are inevitably happier. As hard as it is to fathom, a soldier in Iraq under a hail of bullets may be less stressed than your average Los Angeles millionaire complaining about an overcooked steak…if the former has superior stress-management skills and thus a greater genetic “happiness” set point.

What about the people who don’t have a natural stress-management ability? Fortunately, there’s hope for stress-management under-achievers. According to Seymour, one method proven to be effective at increasing set-point happiness is a daily meditation practice.

According to researchers at the Laboratory For Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, meditation stimulates the brain’s left pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain most active when we’re happy and alert, so meditation is very effective at lowering stress and increasing feelings of happiness.

Maybe this is why Buddhist monks seem to smile so much? It can’t have anything to do with eating beans and rice everyday and abstaining from sex! Otherwise, my advice is to quit your job, shave your head and move into your local temple–just kidding (well, not the part about quitting your job!)

We can stay in this world and become happier: merely devote some time to meditation and stimulate the left pre-frontal cortex. Of course, this is easier said than done for those of us not jumping for joy like a bunch of idiots.

People find meditation difficult, and I’m no exception. Fortunately, there are meditation programs that work for those us who under-achieve at stimulating the left pre-frontal cortex while chanting and sitting in the lotus position. My favorite meditation program is Holosync.

Cognitive Therapy:

Seymour mentions another method useful for steering our set points toward the world of happiness: cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy works by teaching us how to recognize negative patterns and breaking them. Instead of dwelling on the negative, cognitive therapy teaches us to focus on the thought patterns which make us happy. Even miserable people have their happy moments. The key is to develop the happy moments and avoid bogging down in misery ruts.

Some of you are thinking that cognitive therapy is “positive thinking” mumbo-jumbo–but really it isn’t. With positive thinking, you’re in denial: rather than accepting the fact that some things are, in fact, negative, you’re taught to spin every situation into a positive–no matter what. The problem is we unconsciously know we’re lying to ourselves and don’t really buy it. Positive thinking devotees are paranoid of any negative thought and feel guilty when such thoughts arise–neither healthy nor realistic.

Faking happiness isn’t the same as authentic happiness. With cognitive therapy, you learn to break negative patterns by listening to feedback–sounds complicated right? It isn’t. Here’s an example: you watch two hours of television news and get bombarded with all the problems in the world–how do you feel afterwards? Similar to millions of other people: you feel depressed and powerless.

These feelings stay with you for the rest of the day–or even week–and are compounded every time you watch the news. What should you do? Well, stop watching the news! What value is it providing you? Are you doing anything positive with the information? If no, then stop your source of negativity. Or, get empowered and do something about it.

For example, if you see a news segment on kids who’ve been victimized, why not join an organization that helps abused kids? When you empower yourself, you can transform negative energy into a positive outcome. Empowered actions are gratifying and bring us longer lasting happiness than such simple pleasures as eating dessert or watching a good movie.

Cognitive therapy teaches us how things affect us–whether positive or negative. Here’s another example: you see an injured animal on the side of the road but instead of driving by muttering how terrible it is, you pull over, wrap the wounded animal in a towel and take it to a vet. Because of this compassionate act the animal makes a full recovery and you feel like a million bucks all week.

Of course the feeling will eventually wear off, but you can prolong it or invite it back by putting in some volunteer hours at an animal shelter or other reputable non-profit organization for animals. Again, you’re taking the path of empowerment, and when we’re empowered, we’re unstressed and happy. When we play a role in improving the world around us, we’re gratified and, again, actions resulting in gratification provide longer periods of happiness.

Seeking Out Pleasure:

What about seeking out those activities in which we obtain pleasure? Well, if we focus on our pleasure more often, we’re less likely to experience depression. Terrific! Unfortunately, according to Seymour, studies show that such pleasures are fleeting in nature. For example, great sex is great–for a while–but the feeling eventually wears off until your next sex fix.

All you create with sex in such a situation is another compulsion, also known as a distraction. Now I’m the last person to knock sex in any way and I’m not saying sex is a waste of your time! A strong sex drive is a strong sign of health and vitality but don’t deceive yourself that sexual pleasure is a solution for creating permanent change when your set point is turned towards sorrow.

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Pleasures are a great and important aspect of life but gratifications bring longer lasting happiness. Seymour writes, “…gratifications are activities that call on our skills and strengths and give us a sense of a job well done.”

Personally, I enjoy pleasure more when the gratifications are in full effect. Pleasure is like icing on the cake: while the icing is part of enjoying cake, it can’t replace the cake. A personal example to drive this point home: several years ago I did a kettlebell workshop with my good friend Dylan Thomas in NYC.

The workshop was looking disastrous: I had to change the venue three times, as booked venues kept falling though. Then, a guy who was supposed to present the workshop with me had to bail out just days before the event.

With this news, I had several people cancel right off the bat and several more express anger via email, accusing me of lacking professionalism. It also seemed the people still planning on coming weren’t bringing their positive vibes: many were pissed off and told me they’d have canceled but for their non-refundable airfares. The workshop foreboded disaster and I knew it had to be the best of my career to turn things around.

To make a long story short: Dylan and I put on a great workshop and everyone left happy. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic groups I’ve ever worked with and everyone had a blast. Instead of getting depressed about everything going wrong, we empowered ourselves by taking charge of what we could and at the end of the day that was enough and it all worked out.

I received immense gratification from pulling off that workshop. It was a great group, a fun day, and afterwards a few of us went out for a few too many drinks. We had a blast…until the next day’s arrival of h-ll’s hangover.

Where am I going with this? The pleasure of going out and having some fun on the town was that much sweeter due to the gratification of that workshop’s success. If we’d simply traveled to NYC and had a night out, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as sweet or meaningful.

A night of pleasure lasts a night but a day of gratification can last a lifetime. We need to focus on developing opportunities for gratification–and thus long lasting happiness–rather than pursuing those fleeting pleasures. My own rule of thumb is: enjoy pleasures but focus on gratifications.

Optimizing Hormones

An important element of happiness not discussed in the article is the importance of optimizing hormones. I won’t expound on this since this article is long enough already. Briefly, hormones such as testosterone, progesterone, human growth hormone, DHEA and pregnenolone play important roles in how we feel. These hormones are important for both men and women.

When testosterone and progesterone are low, sex drive and mood are likewise. Given low testosterone levels, feeling alive and full of vitality is as likely as becoming a millionaire while working the cash register at 7-11. Similar to the genetic set point of happiness, hormone levels are genetically determined, but we can stack the deck in our favor by engaging in stress-management activities such as:

* Getting eight hours of deep sleep nightly.
* Having an active sex life.
* Working out smart and avoiding over-training.
* Eating a balanced diet with the right kinds and levels of fat, protein and carbohydrate.
* Ensuring our vitamin and mineral levels are in check.


While the art of happiness may not be an easy craft to develop and master but one at which we must work hard–just like any goal in life–it’s probably the most important goal we can achieve. After all, what else matters if you don’t find happiness in this life?

Don’t be a slave to your genetic set point–anything can be improved. Just as you can learn more and become more intelligent–or lift more and get stronger–you’re capable of greater, more meaningful, happiness. Even if you never win the award for Happiest Person on the Planet, deepening your experience of happiness is reward enough.

Dedicate your life to creating plentiful opportunities for gratification and enjoying pleasurable activities and improve your stress-management skills–this is what living life aggressively is all about.

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