Happiness by the Numbers

It is most definitely consistent with a religious conservative’s worldview to argue that experience of happiness is a cocktail of biological, financial, cultural, social, and psychological factors, but I question whether the sort of scientific differentiation that University of Mary Washington Psychology Professor Holly Schiffrin attempts in a recent syndicated column is really all that useful, or even plausible:

So, if about 50 percent of happiness is explained by our genes and 10 percent by our life circumstances, what accounts for the rest? The activities that promote happiness are those we have resorted to during the recession because we haven’t had as much disposable income as usual, such as staying at home for game or movie nights with family and friends.
The No. 1 predictor of happiness across cultures is good relationships.

Schiffrin goes on to mention the possibility of using the little boosts of an expenditure high (in the life circumstances category) in such a way as to assist relationships. In that little concession, though, she pokes a hole in the veneer of categories. Circumstances can make quality time more difficult; moreover, I, for one, certainly have ample experience with the ability of economic hardship to prevent engagement in fulfilling activities, thereby increasing frustration and decreasing happiness. If life circumstances negate good relationships, which category is to blame?
We can go a step farther, though, and question whether even genes can be considered a one-way contributor. My general reading leads me to believe that genetic makeup can change, based not only on environmental and other experiences, but also on the attitudes and beliefs that we internalize. To the extent that that’s the case, genetic factors are more like biological indicators of where we are as organisms, and that is inextricable from where we are as spiritual beings.

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10 years ago

One’s genetic make-up (genotype) cannot change, however we may be predisposed to certain environmental or other factors which switch on or off, resulting in certain phenotypic traits or even diseases. Take lung cancer. Not all smokers get lung cancer, but if one is genetically predisposed to lung cancer, then smoking can turn on that switch, resulting in the cellular mutations that cause the disease. The act of smoking is the catalyst.
On another note, a study of happiness focusing on careers found that business owners, while working the longest hours, were the happiest of the lot. Customer service reps are the least happy. I presume that having some degree of control over the direction of one’s life and the self motivation, satisfaction, and freedom to produce or provide a product or service is an evolutionary trait that is deeply entrenched in the human DNA. This is something which our founding fathers very clearly understood and the essence of which is captured in our Constitution.

Justin Katz
10 years ago

But epigenetics don’t appear to have only to do with proclivities. Certain exposures and experiences can turn genes on and off, effectively changing genetic makeup for a lifetime, or even generations.

10 years ago

“Desire is the cause of all suffering”, so spoke the Buddha.

10 years ago

We are NOT slave to our genes!
Genes give us a propensity or proclivity for certain characteristics, like alcoholism, they are not the real determinant of our happiness – you cannot be a 50% alcoholic, you either are or you aren’t.
There are definite things we can all do to be happier given who we are and the challenges we face:
See http://HappinessHabit.com and http://Creating-Happiness.com
Let us know what you think!
Michele Moore ~ HappinessHabit.com

10 years ago

Of course we are not slave to our genes, but genetic make-up does not change, except via mutation. The expression of the genes can change, but not the actual physical DNA configuration, which is passed onto progeny. If one has the genes for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, one cannot make it go away by taking classes. If you’ve got the genes for Huntington’s, Gaucher’s or a multitude of other diseases, there is nothing you can do to alter that destiny. Mental diseases are no different than physical diseases in that respect. They can be managed, treated, sometimes even neutralized with medication, but it’s still lurking in your genes, and can be passed onto subsequent generations in spite of all attempts to make it go away.
In many, but not all cases, nature and nurture are equal components in any one person’s outward expression of personality, appearance, proclivities, propensity to disease, etc. One’s happiness quotient is simply another piece on that spectrum.

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