Why some people have a harder time being happy

The self-help industry is booming, driven by research in positive psychology – the scientific study of what makes people thrive. At the same time, the number of anxiety, depression and self-harm continues to rise worldwide. So are we doomed to be unhappy despite these advances in psychology?

According to an influential article published in the Review of General Psychology in 2005, 50% of people’s happiness is determined by their genes, 10% depends on their circumstances, and 40% on “intentional activity” (mainly whether you are positive or not). This so-called happiness cake put positive psychological aids in the driver’s seat so they could decide over their path of happiness. (Although the unspoken message is that if you are unhappy, it is your own fault.)

The fortune cake was widely criticized because it was based on assumptions about genetics that have been discredited. For decades, researchers in behavioral genetics have conducted studies with twins and found that between 40% and 50% of the variance in their happiness was explained by genetics, which is why the percentage appeared in the happiness cake.

Behavioral geneticists use a statistical technique to estimate the genetic and environmental components based on people’s familial kinship, hence the use of twins in their studies. But these numbers assumed that both identical and fraternal twins experience the same environment when they grow up together – an assumption that does not really hold water.

In response to the criticism of the 2005 paper, the same authors wrote a paper in 2019 that introduced a more nuanced approach to the effect of genes on happiness, recognizing the interplay between our genetics and our environment.

Nature and nutrition

Nature and nutrition are not independent of each other. On the contrary, molecular genetics, the study of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level, show that they constantly influence each other. Genes influence the behaviors that help people choose their environment. For example, extroversion transmitted from parents to children helps children build their friendship groups.

Likewise, the environment alters gene expression. For example, when expectant mothers were exposed to famine, their babies’ genes changed correspondingly, resulting in chemical changes that suppressed the production of a growth factor. This resulted in babies being born smaller than normal and with conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology.
Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology.
Flickr / Wikimedia Commons

Nature and care are interdependent and constantly influence each other. This is why two people raised in the same environment may react differently to it, meaning that behavioral genetics’ assumption of an equal environment is no longer valid. Whether people can be happier or not also depends on their “environmental sensitivity” – their ability to change.

Some people are susceptible to their environment and can therefore change their thoughts, feelings and behaviors significantly in response to both negative and positive events. So when they participate in a wellness workshop or read a positive psychology book, they can be affected by it and experience significantly more changes compared to others – and the change can also last longer.

But there is no positive psychological intervention that will work for all people because we are as unique as our DNA and as such have a different capacity for well-being and its fluctuations through life.

Are we destined to be unhappy? Some people may struggle a little harder to improve their well-being than others, and that struggle may mean that they will continue to be unhappy for extended periods of time. And in extreme cases, they may never experience high levels of happiness.

Others who have more genetic plasticity, which means they are more sensitive to the environment and thus have an increased capacity for change, may be able to improve their well-being and may even thrive if they adopt a healthy lifestyle and choose to live and work in an environment that increases their happiness and ability to grow.

But genetics does not determine who we are, even though it plays a significant role in our well-being. What also matters is the choices we make about where we live, who we live with, and how we live our lives, affecting both our happiness and the happiness of future generations.

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