Is Happiness Genetic?

bigstock-Success--Now-I-feel-soooo-go-12662633In almost every way, each and every one of us is unique and unrepeatable.

That’s true when it comes to happiness as well.

Everyone is different. We each come with a different “set-point” for happiness.

In fact, a good measure of happiness is genetic.

By most experts’ opinions, including Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, genetics accounts for about 50% of our happiness.

About 10% is based on the circumstances of life, that is, what we have in terms of material possessions and acquisitions in life. But, and this is the “big but” of happiness, about 40% of happiness is within our control–and it depends upon what we do and how we think about life.

You can go about trying to acquire new homes and new possessions and becoming the next Jeff Katzenberg of Amazon, but the truth is– you will be expending a tremendous amount of effort in what will, at best, yield you about a 10% increase in your happiness. Why don’t material possessions provide lasting happiness? It has to do with a remarkable principle in positive psychology called “hedonic adaptation.”

Fancy words, but what do they mean? Quite simply, hedonic adaptation refers to the fact that — within a relatively short period of time after achieving what we thought would bring us great happiness — that enjoyment and pleasure quickly fades. It’s very much like the buzz you get the first time you drink your first beer. If you drink that beer every night, the pleasure or buzz you get from it tends to diminish rapidly as your body adapts to the effects of alcohol. Well, the truth is that pleasure (derived from things outside of us) tends to stimulate the same dopamine receptors in the brain that alcohol does. And so, after a short period of time, even the greatest pleasure tends to fade with time.

Learning how to guard against hedonic adaptation is one of the great challenges to living a happy and meaningful life. More on that in blog posts to come.

For now, the next time you are contemplating how to increase the happiness in your life, remember that 50% is set by your genetics, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t whip up a big dollop of happiness on demand. Then remember that only 10% comes from material things outside of us. But the 40% that is in your power to control, comes mostly from the thoughts you think and the things you do in life: things like counting your blessings and being grateful for what you already have, adopting a more optimistic attitude about the future, savoring the special moments in life by focusing on them in a mindful way and remembering to do kind things for others.

May the force be with you as you defend yourself against the relentless attacks of hedonic adaptation in your life. Till next time, in body and soul, Dr. Neimark