The self-improvement industry is booming, fueled by research in positive psychology-the scientific study of what makes people happy.
At the same time, levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm continue to rise around the world. So are we doomed to be miserable despite all these advances in psychology?
According to an authoritative article published in the journal Review of General Psychology, 50 percent of people’s happiness is determined by their genes, 10 percent depends on circumstances, and 40 percent depends on “intentional activity” (basically, whether you are positive or not).
This so-called “happiness pie” has put proponents of positive psychology in the helm, allowing them to determine the trajectory of their own happiness. (Although there is an opinion that if you are unhappy, it is your own fault).
The happiness formula has been widely criticized because it was based on assumptions about genetics that have been discredited. For decades, behavioral genetics researchers conducted studies with twins and found that 40 to 50 percent of the difference in their happiness was due to genetics, which is why that percentage appeared in the happiness formula.
Behavioral geneticists use a statistical method to estimate genetic and environmental components based on people’s familial relationship, hence the use of twins in their research.
But these figures assumed that both identical and dissimilar twins experience the same environmental conditions when growing up together, an assumption that does not really stand up to criticism.
In response to criticism of the 2005 article, the same authors wrote a paper in 2019 presenting a more nuanced approach to the influence of genes on happiness, recognizing the interaction between our genetics and environment.
Nature and nurture are not independent of each other. On the contrary, molecular genetics–the study of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level–shows that they constantly influence each other.
Genes influence behaviors that help people choose their environment. For example, extraversion, which is passed from parents to children, helps children form their own friendship groups.
Equally, the environment alters gene expression. For example, when expectant mothers were exposed to starvation, their children’s genes changed accordingly, resulting in chemical changes that suppressed growth factor production. As a result, children were born smaller than usual and suffered from diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
Nature and nurture are interdependent and constantly influence each other. This is why two people raised under the same conditions may react differently, which means that behavioral genetics’ assumption of equal conditions is no longer valid.
Also, whether people can become happier depends on their “environmental sensitivity”-the ability to change.
Some people are sensitive to their environment and therefore can significantly change their thoughts, feelings and behavior in response to both negative and positive events.
Therefore, by attending a well-being seminar or reading a book on positive psychology, they may fall under its influence and experience significantly more change than other people – and these changes may last longer.
But there is no method of positive psychology that works for all people because we are as unique as our DNA, and therefore we have a different capacity for well-being and its fluctuations over the course of our lives.
Are we doomed to be miserable? Some people may struggle a little harder for their well-being than others, and that struggle may mean that they will remain unhappy for a longer period of time. And in extreme cases, they may never experience a high level of happiness.
Others, on the other hand, who have greater genetic plasticity, that is, who are more sensitive to their environment and therefore have an increased capacity for change, may improve their well-being and perhaps even thrive if they lead healthy lives and live and work in an environment that promotes their happiness and ability to develop.
But genetics does not determine who we are, although it does play an important role in our well-being. The choices we make about where we live, who we live with, and how we live our lives are also important, affecting both our happiness and that of future generations.
Jolanta Burke, senior lecturer, Center for Positive Psychology and Health, RCCI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.