How Can We Build a Happier Future?

July 25, 2012 Katharina Lochner

Is Our Happiness Based on Genetics?

This blog post presents a talk by Ragnhild Nes, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health,and Nic Marks, well-being researcher from the UK. They were asking themselves the question: How can we build a happier future?

As an increasing number of governments and public institutions is becoming interested in well-being and is taking action in order to improve their citizens’ happiness and life-satisfaction, the researchers first wanted to find a model to describe well-being and thus described it a product of external resources and personal resources, which leads to good functioning and this in turn to happiness. And all these factors also interact and influence each other.

When thinking about these factors, the question of heritability came up. To what extent is our well-being due to our genes, and to what extent can we actively influence our well-being? Last week, we already cited the numbers found by researcher Sonja Lyubomirski from University of California at Riverside: 50% of our happiness is due to our genes, 10% due to circumstances, and 40% due to our activities.However, Ragnhild Nes explains that we can’t interpret these numbers for single persons and say 50% of their happiness is due to a person’s genetics, 10% due to his or her circumstances, and 40% due to his or her activities. Rather, it means that 50% of the differences between people with respect to their happiness can be explained by genetics, 10% of the differences by the circumstances, and 40% by the activities. But we also have to keep in mind that our genes heavily impact the activities we take!

Thus, happiness is rather stable, meaning that people who are happy at one point in time are likely to be happy at other points in time, and people who are happy in one situation (e.g. at work) are likely to be happy in others (e.g. during leisure activities). This is to some extent due to the genes. But there is also much change, and this change is due to circumstances. Thus, the researchers see five ways to well-being:

  • Connect: Relationships are important for our well-being.
  • Be active: It is the fastest way of getting out of a bad mood.
  • Take notice: Notice what is going on around you, be mindful.
  • Keep learning: Learn new things throughout your life course.
  • Give: We feel good when we give to other people.

Ragnhild Nes and Nic Marks also have some ideas what governments could do in order to improve their citizens’ well-being:

  • Create good work: It allows us to connect, to be active, to find meaning and of course to make a living. Without it, life satisfaction diminishes.
  • Reform the banking system: Indebtedness is very threatening to mental health.
  • Develop flourishing schools: Stimulate curiosity and learning, which is the basis for keeping learning throughout our lives.
  • Promote complete health: Invest in prevention, mental and spiritual health.
  • Engage with citizens: Instead of hiding behind walls and bureaucracy, talk to them and involve them.
  • Build good foundations: Create a stable and good physical environment.
  • Measure what matters!

This is another encouraging talk in which we not only finally came to understand what exactly heritability means, but which also gives us some ideas how we can improve our well-being – not only individually, but also globally, at least in countries in which the basic needs are satisfied.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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