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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