Where Happiness Comes From
You could probably come up with a list of things that would make you happy. Maybe it entails a promotion at work, a new car or someone to fall in love with. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to happiness, about half of the equation for attaining it boils down to biology.
The genes we inherit from our parents help determine certain personality traits. Researchers have found that those genetically derived attributes make up about half of our personal happiness quotients [source: West]. Some people are handed more of a tendency for feeling satisfied with life, while others will naturally yearn for more stimulation. Scientists don't think that there's a single gene responsible for people's happiness; rather, the sum of their parts is what can turn that frown upside down more easily.
To figure out which predisposed personality traits contribute to happiness, psychologists studied nearly 1,000 pairs of twins. The twins' genetic similarities allowed the experts to isolate common inherited characteristics [source: LiveScience]. From there, the psychologists pinpointed low-stress, highly sociable and conscientious individuals as having the widest happiness ranges. You can think of a happiness range in terms of emotional elasticity. Optimistic folks with strong interpersonal relationships may bounce back into shape sooner after difficult events. On the flip side, people who are more pessimistic and antisocial may take longer to recover.
Fortunately, humans aren't hopelessly bound by genetics. There are plenty of ways for the cynics among us to find happiness. And while intelligence doesn't significantly affect intrinsic happiness, it does take a little brain power to alter your mentality to focus on the good. In fact, a relatively new branch of psychology is devoted to understanding how people can train themselves to be happier.
Pioneered by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, positive psychology concentrates on how positive emotions, such as optimism, gratitude and mindfulness, influence overall happiness and satisfaction. Its logic follows that if people put those attributes into practice, they'll reap the benefits of happiness. Spending time with others, performing acts of kindness and pursuing fulfilling goals, for instance, should foster ultimate joy.
From there, happiness could actually make you smarter. Neurological studies have shown that the sunny emotion promotes broader thinking skills and creativity. Our longevity also profits from all of this good cheer. Relieved from the undue strain that stress produces in our bodies, the happiest people tend to live the longest.
Now that's something to smile about.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Edelson, Ed. "Nothing Smart About Happiness." HealthDay Consumer News Service. Aug. 14, 2005.
- LiveScience. "Happiness Is Partly Inherited." March 4, 2008. (May 5, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/health/080304-happy-genes.html
- Lloyd, Robin. "The Keys to Happiness, and Why We Don't Use Them." LiveScience. Feb. 27, 2006. (April 30, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/health/060227_happiness_keys.html
- Max, D.T. "Happiness 101." The New York Times Magazine. Jan. 7, 2007. (April 30, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/07/magazine/07happiness.t.html?sq=happiness%20intelligence&st=cse&scp=2&pagewanted=print
- Morris, Holly J. "Happiness Explained." U.S. News & World Report. Sept. 3, 2001. (April 30, 2009)http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/010903/archive_002876_6.htm
- Soltis, Greg. "5 Keys to Happiness." LiveScience. Aug. 22, 2008. (April 30, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/health/080822-top5-keys-happiness.html
- Trejos, Nancy. "Is Ignorance Bliss?" The Washington Post. June 6, 2008. (April 30, 2009)http://voices.washingtonpost.com/thecheckout/2008/06/is_ignorance_bliss.html
- Wolfers, Justin. "Is Ignorance Really Bliss?" The New York Times. Jan. 15, 2009. (April 30, 2009)http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/is-ignorance-really-bliss/