*Time* released the following article the week of 16 March 08

Is Our Happiness Preordained?
By Laura Blue

Though most of us spend a lifetime pursuing happiness, new research is
showing that that goal may be largely out of our control. Two new
studies this month add to a growing body of evidence that factors like
genes and age may impact our general well-being more than our best day-
to-day attempts at joy.

In one study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggest that
genes account for about 50% of the variation in people’s levels of
happiness — the underlying determinant being genetically determined
personality traits, like “being sociable, active, stable, hardworking
and conscientious,” says co-author Timothy Bates. What’s more, says
Bates, these happiness traits generally come as a package, so that if
you have one you’re likely to have them all.

Bates and his Edinburgh colleagues drew their conclusions after looking
at survey data of 973 pairs of adult twins. They found that, on average,
a pair of identical twins shared more personality traits than a pair of
non-identical twins. And when asked how happy they were, the identical
twin pairs responded much more similarly than other twins, suggesting
that both happiness and personality have a strong genetic component. The
study, published in Psychological Science, went one step further: it
suggested that personality and happiness do not merely coexist, but that
in fact innate personality traits cause happiness. Twins who had similar
scores in key traits — extroversion, calmness and conscientiousness, for
example — had similar happiness scores; once those traits were accounted
for, however, the similarity in twins’ happiness scores disappeared.

Another larger study, released in January ahead of its publication in
Social Science & Medicine this month, shows that whatever people’s
individual happiness levels, we all tend to fall into a larger, cross-
cultural and global pattern of joy. According to survey data
representing 2 million people in more than 70 countries, happiness
typically follows a U-shaped curve: among people in their mid-40s and
younger, happiness trends downward with age, then climbs back up among
older people. (That shift doesn’t necessarily hold for the very old with
severe health problems.) Across the world, people in their 40s generally
claim to be less happy than those who are younger or older, and the
global happiness nadir appears to hit somewhere around 44.

What happens at 44? Lots of things, but none that can be pinned down as
the root cause of unhappiness. It’s not anxiety from the kids, for
starters. Even among the childless, those in midlife reported lower life
satisfaction than the young or old, says study co-author Andrew Oswald,
an economics professor at the University of Warwick in Britain. Other
things that didn’t alter the happiness curve: income, marital status or
education. “You can adjust for 100 things and it doesn’t go away,”
Oswald says. He and co-author David Blanchflower, an economist at
Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, also adjusted their results for
cohort effects: their data spanned more than 30 years, making them
confident that whatever makes people miserable about being middle-aged,
it isn’t related, say, to being born in the year 1960 and growing up
with that generation’s particular set of experiences.

At first glance, the new studies may appear at odds with some previous
ones, largely because in happiness research, a lot depends on how you
ask the question. Oswald and Blanchflower looked at responses to a
sweeping, general question: “Taken all together, how would you say
things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty
happy or not too happy?” (The wording changes slightly depending on
where the survey was conducted, but the question is essentially the
same.) In a 2001 study, Susan Charles at University of California,
Irvine, measured something slightly different: changes in positive
affect, or positive emotions, versus negative affect over more than 25
years. Charles found that positive affect stayed roughly stable through
young adulthood and midlife, falling off a little in older age; negative
affect, meanwhile, fell consistently with age.

Charles thinks that feelings like angst, disgust and anger may fade
because as we get older we learn to care less about what others think of
us, or perhaps because we become more adept at avoiding situations we
don’t like. (The Edinburgh researchers, too, found that older study
participants scored lower than younger ones on scales of neuroticism —
worry and nervousness — and higher on scales of agreeableness.) Oswald
chalks up the midlife dip in happiness shown in his study to people
“letting go of impossible aspirations” — first, there’s the pain of
fading youth and the realization that we may never accomplish all that
we had dreamed, then the contentment we gain later in life through
acceptance and self-awareness. “When you’re young you can’t do that,”
Oswald says.

An oft-cited finding from other happiness research suggests, however,
that neither very good events nor very bad events seem to change
people’s happiness much in the long term. Most people, it seems, revert
back to some kind of baseline happiness level within a couple years of
even the most devastating events, like the death of a spouse or loss of
limbs. Perhaps that kind of stability is due to heredity — those
happiness-inducing personality traits that identical twins have been
shown to share.

Still, lack of control doesn’t necessarily mean lack of joy. “The
research also shows that most people consider themselves happy most of
the time,” says University of Edinburgh’s Bates. “We’re wired to be
optimistic. Most people think they’re happier than most [other] people.”
And even if you aren’t part of that lucky majority, Bates says, there’s
always that other 50% of overall life satisfaction that, according to
his research, is not genetically predetermined. To feel happier, he
recommends mimicking the personality traits of those who are: Be social,
even if it’s only with a few people; set achievable goals and work
toward them; and concentrate on putting setbacks and worries in
perspective. Don’t worry, as the saying goes. Be happy.

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