Whether it is in relationships, work, family, friends, or a big tub of ice cream, we are all, essentially, seeking joy. Ruskin bond famously compared happiness to an exclusive butterfly that must never be pursued but only savoured for the brief time that it touches you. If there is any universal truth to that, then why do some people seem significantly happier than others?
The subject of happiness has been researched for years, time and again, by geneticists and psychologists. Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell, two such brilliant psychologists, introduced the concept of the ‘hedonic treadmill’ to the world in 1971. The hedonic treadmill is the idea that humans return to a stable level of happiness despite any major or minor fluctuations in their external environment.
More recently, Mark Manson, author of the book ‘The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck’, re-introduced the idea by suggesting that happiness remains a seven, for almost everyone, on a scale of one through ten. Depending on life events, which may be positive or negative, the number will be higher or lower, respectively, but only for a brief time.
If there is a happiness set point, who and what determines that? Contrary to Manson’s more generic theory, psychologists have discovered that each of us has a unique set point determined up to fifty percent by our genetic makeup. The other forty percent is attributed to an internal state of mind, and the remaining ten percent to external circumstances. This means that almost half of our capacity to feel and experience joy is pre-determined.
In the same way that some of us are blessed with light eyes, freckles or naturally auburn hair, some of us are bestowed with a higher potential to lead happier, more emotionally satisfying lives. So, then, what about the rest of us? Are we doomed to lead less gratifying lives if we don’t win the gene lottery?
The baseline level of our happiness is an amalgamation of genetics and a range of other things: the environment we grew up in, the environment we choose to live in, our personalities, the age and stage of our lives, our expectations, and desires, to name a few.
What accounts for the other half is a spectrum of factors that are largely within our ability to influence. Our genetics predispose us to have certain characteristics, and while that is inevitable, it doesn’t take away from the power we possess to shift, mould, and re-direct our lives in any way we desire.
So, you could be someone who is genetically prone to being more anxious and neurotic than others, but you could override that predicament by making different choices on a day-to-day basis. One way you can do this, for instance, is by reaching out to a therapist, a friend, or a family member you trust. Venting out thoughts and emotions is an effective way to lighten your being. Journaling, committing to spiritual practice, and cultivating a creative hobby are other ways to ease an anxious mind.
A deeply fulfilling life is the result of giving back just as much and even more so than you receive. Volunteering for causes that you are passionate about, or finding work that sparks joy within you, is a wonderful way to enrich your life with meaning and profound experiences. Our genetics provide a blueprint, but they are not the outcome of our lives set in stone. In fact, genes respond and manifest in coherence with our individual actions and behaviours. So, please don’t underestimate the potency of free will, as you acknowledge the crucial role of genetics in shaping us as we are.