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Biotech Science

The Genetics of Happiness 129

Posted by Soulskill
from the double-helix-of-good-times dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Studies comparing identical twins with non-identical twins have helped to establish the heritability of many aspects of behavior. Recent work suggests that about one third of the variation in people's happiness is heritable. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve has taken the study a step further, picking a popular suspect — the gene that encodes the serotonin-transporter protein, a molecule that shuffles a brain messenger called serotonin through cell membranes — and examined how variants of the 5-HTT gene affect levels of happiness. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants—long and short and people have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. After examining genetic data from more than 2,500 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, De Neve found that people with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied with life and those with two long alleles were 17% more likely of describing themselves as very satisfied. Interestingly enough, there is a notable variation across races with Asian Americans in the sample having on average 0.69 long genes, white Americans with 1.12, and black Americans with 1.47. 'It has long been suspected that this gene plays a role in mental health but this is the first study to show that it is instrumental in shaping our individual happiness levels (PDF),' writes De Neve. 'This finding helps to explain why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be naturally happier than others, and that's in no small part due to our individual genetic make-up.'"
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The Genetics of Happiness

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  • by coinreturn (617535) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:23AM (#37748588)
    So the summary implies that black people are expected to be happier. Is that what is observed in the wild?
    • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:38AM (#37748660) Homepage

      Baseline happiness can arguably be negatively correlated to competitiveness, drive and success. You are naturally happy, so you don't worry about making things better for yourself or your children, you just go with the flow because things are pretty good the way they are.

      Check out the decisions of people before and after they go on an SSRI. The small sample of SSRI users I know tend to fall into a complacent, ultimately self destructive, state when they are on the pills for too long (6 months or more). It's not something I've seen widely published in the literature, just personal observation shared between myself and other non-SSRI users about SSRI users we know.

      • by coinreturn (617535) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:45AM (#37748710)

        Baseline happiness can arguably be negatively correlated to competitiveness, drive and success. You are naturally happy, so you don't worry about making things better for yourself or your children, you just go with the flow because things are pretty good the way they are.

        Check out the decisions of people before and after they go on an SSRI. The small sample of SSRI users I know tend to fall into a complacent, ultimately self destructive, state when they are on the pills for too long (6 months or more). It's not something I've seen widely published in the literature, just personal observation shared between myself and other non-SSRI users about SSRI users we know.

        I somewhat agree, though without the "self-destructive" part of your statement. I have been on SSRI and have seen my own complacency reduce my drive.

      • A friend, as well as myself, struggle with anxiety disorders. I considered going on SSRIs but he warned me against them. His experience was, yes it evens out your extremes, so no difficult periods of crippling anxiety. However, you are equally incapable of being very happy, the drug mainly working to, quite literally, level you. He said after months of use he felt like he was just going through the motions, everything was routine. He was not upset, sad or anxious, but he also never enjoyed anything. I decid
        • A few years after purchasing my convertible car, I read that driving fast with the top down in the sunshine can release a significant quantity of seratonin compared to driving a sedan, sedately, with the windows rolled up. I also read (in a completely unrelated article) that excess levels of seratonin can lead to involuntary clenching of the jaw muscles and grinding of the teeth. For myself, these two observations appear to work (blast home over the I-195 causeway with the top down, get a case of lock-jaw

          • Sadly not an option for me at the moment :( This economy is not so kind to graduates.
            • Sadly not an option for me at the moment :( This economy is not so kind to graduates.

              My convertible is a 1991 Mazda Miata - decent ones go for about $1500 these days.

              • by cayenne8 (626475)

                My convertible is a 1991 Mazda Miata - decent ones go for about $1500 these days.

                Add another $1500-$2K to that and put on a turbo or supercharger..and you will REALLY start to feel better. Those little cars souped up can REALLY be screamers. You sure can surprise people in mustangs, or even the lower end vettes with a tweaked miata.

                • My convertible is a 1991 Mazda Miata - decent ones go for about $1500 these days.

                  Add another $1500-$2K to that and put on a turbo or supercharger..and you will REALLY start to feel better. Those little cars souped up can REALLY be screamers. You sure can surprise people in mustangs, or even the lower end vettes with a tweaked miata.

                  Careful there - I went down that road, $5K for a turbo+ECU with intercooler and free flow exhaust, another $5K for limited slip differential, brake upgrades, etc. I got plenty of lock-jaw before the turbo went on (though I get it much easier since...)

                  • by cayenne8 (626475)
                    Nice...!!!

                    I went the route of getting one of the '05 Mazdaspeed miatas, already with factory turbo, suspension upgrades, anti-sway bars..etc.

                    I'm looking to drop about $1600 or so, to get rid of the factory air restriction...using the Flyin Miata [flyinmiata.com] upgrades...basically the little enchilada...to get to about 200HP true rear wheel horsepower...which will be pretty fun.

                    I'll likely keep it at that, and use this for my ragtop, and possibly get one of the new 580 HP ZL-1 Camaro [caranddriver.com] that should come out some time next

                    • My turbo was an early FM unit, late 1996! I'm hoping I can afford the FM V8 treatment by the time this engine is used up.

                    • by cayenne8 (626475)

                      My turbo was an early FM unit, late 1996! I'm hoping I can afford the FM V8 treatment by the time this engine is used up.

                      FM V8 solution???

                      I'd not heard of that one...I need to go check the site again!!!

              • Oh yeah those can be picked up for £500 here. But insurance is another £2000 a year, so that is a no-go. I spend most of my expendable income on monthly train passes anyway. Whoopee.
              • Miatas really are a pretty good deal, happiness/money wise. I'm on my second one. So far the only things that have needed to be replaced on the second one (2002) are tires, brakes, and oil.
              • by tinkerton (199273)

                Studies have shown that discussions about happiness tend to morph into miata threads.

                • Studies have shown that discussions about happiness tend to morph into miata threads.

                  Cheaper, safer, and probably more effective than retro-viral genetic therapy.

          • I imagine there are many things you can do, besides swallowing a pill, that have similarly profound effects on basic brain chemistry.

            Yeah....like exercise.

            • I imagine there are many things you can do, besides swallowing a pill, that have similarly profound effects on basic brain chemistry.

              Yeah....like exercise.

              Sacrilege! Next you'll say it can help you lose weight too.

            • by yurtinus (1590157)
              And donuts... don't forget donuts....
        • My doc put me on SSRIs /because/ I had no highs and lows. No wonder I noticed no difference.
      • by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:23AM (#37748990) Homepage

        Baseline happiness can arguably be negatively correlated to competitiveness, drive and success.

        Or not, because people who are depressed feel like it doesn't matter what they do, life's going to suck anyways. They may also respond to their constant unhappiness by looking for artificial mood boosters, which can lead to alcoholism or drug use. They frequently also fail to recognize the value of their accomplishments. By contrast, a happier person is more likely to trigger their brain's reward mechanisms when they do something productive, so they're likely to repeat the behavior.

        And it's also worth noting that it's unclear to what degree "drive" and "competitiveness" has to do with "success": The best predictor of a person's level of educational attainment is their parents' educational attainment. The best predictor of athletic success is genetic advantages like height, eyesight, and weight. Artistic success has a fair amount to do with whether a kid's artistic efforts were encouraged or discouraged early on. Most of the really wealthy people in the US inherited a significant amount (Paul Allen is the exception on this front, not the rule).

        • Baseline happiness can arguably be negatively correlated to competitiveness, drive and success.

          Or not, because people who are depressed feel like it doesn't matter what they do, life's going to suck anyways.

          Like I said, arguably. The morbid joke around depression treatment circles is that ECT works because you forget that your life sucks, as soon as you remember (typically in 6 months or so), you're depressed again.

          Swing too far in any direction and things usually don't go well, in a population of billions there are plenty of exceptions, but mostly, it's a bad idea to get really happy (like opium users), or really depressed.

        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          Well obviously, this study is horribly racist!!

          I mean, the nerve of these scientists trying to propose that possibly there are genetic differences between the races. We all know that this is not the case, that all races and people, of both sexes (and hermaphrodites) are completely and 100% equal on all bases.

          I mean, what the hell? Haven't we progressed beyond this discriminatory scientific findings thing YET?!??!

      • by RCC42 (1457439)

        Due to anecdotal reasons I have to agree with the parent.

        SSRIs make 'bad' situations seem 'fine' so there's no drive to get out of them. Whether that be a bad relationship, bad living arrangements, bad job, etc. Sadness and dissatisfaction can be powerful motivators to improve your life. Of course they can also become crippling when people are unable or unwilling to make changes and end up stuck in that unhappy place for too long. SSRIs make that unhappy place a normal place... so why change?

        Kind of sad

      • Check out the decisions of people before and after they go on an SSRI. The small sample of SSRI users I know tend to fall into a complacent, ultimately self destructive, state when they are on the pills for too long (6 months or more). It's not something I've seen widely published in the literature, just personal observation shared between myself and other non-SSRI users about SSRI users we know.

        I believe this might also be the case with non-SSRI anti-depressants like Wellbutrin (which is really more like a serotonin production booster than something that keeps it from being removed from the system). I think this is a very good point and I'm glad you mentioned it.

        I wonder how much of our great art would never have been created if these concentrated anti-depressants were invented centuries ago.

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:46AM (#37748720) Homepage

      A possible factor here is that if they recruited test subjects from the student population (not uncommon for university studies), the black subjects would be more likely to be exceptionally motivated and happy people just to get into the school in the first place.

      • by nedlohs (1335013)

        Drive and happiness seem pretty much opposed to me. Not depression obviously which tends to kill drive entirely. But if you are "happy" getting Bs you aren't going to work harder to get As. The idea of "baseline happiness" is that you are stuck with it too, I think anyway. So a better paying job or better results in school will make you happier but only temporarily and soon you'll revert back to the baseline. So those who are the most "naturally unhappy" will have a greater urge to increase their happiness

        • by Toonol (1057698)
          But if you're 'happy' studying, you'll be happy studying more. Enjoying the process can lead to success, just as much as enjoying the results.
          • by nedlohs (1335013)

            But that's not what baseline happy is. It's how happy you are by default - so when not studying too. Whether you enjoy the process of studying is independant of how high your starting happiness is.

    • by alexander_686 (957440) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @09:16AM (#37748934)

      2 points.

      First - Yes - it has been obsered in the wild. That was the point of the study.

      Second - and this is imporant - they were testing "Black Americans". African gene are the most heterogeneous - which is what one would expect from the cradle of mankind. "Black Americans" genes are much more homogeneous since they were drawn from a limited pool. So while we can say this is true for Black Americans but it does not say anything about Africans in general.

      • "Black Americans" genes are much more homogeneous since they were drawn from a limited pool.

        Not after two or three generations of 'Massa' creeping out for some action in the slave quarters (and occasionally dying of pneumonia during Virginia winter visits, ahem).

    • by Hatta (162192)

      Compare Southern Baptist services with Lutheran and you tell me.

    • I think it's finally safe to say it. Black Americans really do have longer alleles. And Asian Americans have tiny ones.

      • by cayenne8 (626475)

        I think it's finally safe to say it. Black Americans really do have longer alleles. And Asian Americans have tiny ones.

        Maybe it is another case of "growers vs showers"?

        :)

  • We wouldn't have a republican party
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, we wouldn't have politics at all.

    • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:44AM (#37748698) Homepage

      Interesting test (party affiliation vs allelle composition), doubt we could get government funding to run a publicly published study though. I bet there are private studies already in the works for the various "political think tanks."

    • Why would you say that?
      I have seen a lot of very happy republicans, especially when they are not around democrats, democrats like to put a downer on everything, Oh how many trees died so we can have are playing cards. Oh look the public access posting has a misspelling it is because we are not funding our schools. Oh no we wont go to that because we have to give money to a huge company... Really Democrats are really a downer, even when they are not with Republicans.

      Republicans only seem to get pissed off

      • The Core value of the Modern Republican is try to keep things the way they use to be.

        What decade do you live in?

      • The Core value of the Modern Republican is try to keep things the way they use to be. So in essence they are happy with the way thing were.

        Man, they must have been suffering ever since the steam engine started to change things, and change has only been accelerating since then.

      • by daem0n1x (748565)

        Now I am not saying we should just follow the Republicans just because they are happier with the way thing are/were because they are ignoring a lot of serious problems. But in terms of happiness Republicans are happier on the average then Democrats.

        I saw a documentary about happiness a few weeks ago. In it, an American doctor confirmed exactly that: Republicans are far happier than Democrats, because they believe the world is good as it is and nothing is worth changing.

      • So we should call them the party of buzzkill?
    • Not that I put much store in such things, but studies and surveys show your statement is totally backwards--republicans (or, more specifically, conservatives) tend to be happier than democrats (liberals):

      http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/04/23/conservatives-are-happier-than-liberals-discuss/ [freakonomics.com]

      http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=BABCDEA5-D180-499B-094168CBE5442468 [scientificamerican.com]

      On a purely anecdotal level, I would say that I would categorize more of my conservative friends as "happy people" than I would m

      • by Toonol (1057698)
        Republicans have a higher proportion of married people and parents than democrats. That might contribute to their higher happiness levels.

        Another might be the urban/rural split. Urban dwellers are more likely democrat, and also more likely miserable. I noted a while ago that democrats are more likely to launch into profanity on a bulletin board than republicans... I eventually decided that it has nothing to do with politics, but just a side effect of democrats being generally more urban and younger.
        • Republicans have a higher proportion of married people and parents than democrats. That might contribute to their higher happiness levels.

          On slashdot I've previously been cited statistics that show parents are actually -- at all stages of life -- unhappier than non-parents. I'm a new parent (2-year-old) and that doesn't match my experience, but again, anecdotal...

          Another might be the urban/rural split. Urban dwellers are more likely democrat, and also more likely miserable. I noted a while ago that democrats are more likely to launch into profanity on a bulletin board than republicans... I eventually decided that it has nothing to do with politics, but just a side effect of democrats being generally more urban and younger.

          I've always thought city dwellers seem miserable, but apparently some people like the urban lifestyle. I would mostly agree about profanity / getting really upset on messageboards seems dominated by leftists, but have you noticed on news sites that now use facebook for comments? It's

  • So how long until the protein the long allele encodes is produced and sold as happiness drug?

    • So how long until the protein the long allele encodes is produced and sold as happiness drug?

      A long, long time, they've got maintenance pills that do that - why would you spend money to develop a one time treatment when you can sell people daily pills for the rest of their lives instead?

      • Re:So how long ... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ElectricTurtle (1171201) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:53AM (#37748760)
        Sounds like you didn't understand. He wasn't talking about inserting the alleles into cells after the fact (something which isn't attainable with current technology, although some retroviruses show promise), but rather synthesizing the compounds which those cells with the aforementioned alleles would be producing to mimic the effect without the genetic machinery. That would in fact have to be a regular and recurring treatment, though I'm not sure that it would be all that different from existing treatments relating to seratonin production and management.
        • Sounds like you didn't understand.

          True. Probably due to my personal crusade history and lack of deep though this morning. I have, on occasion, advocated for development of the retroviral type treatments for much more limited / controlled treatments, and the most common reaction I got was "that's science fiction, we're at least 20 years out from even seeing that work reliably in mice" - this was in 2004ish. The treatment I was advocating (increase local neural photosensitivity to replace electrostimulation with photostimulation, increasin

      • Even if we assume that all drug developers are a cartel(rather than a set of entities competing with one another to produce blockbuster drugs; but in agreement that drugs really ought to be expensive), developing a one-time treatment makes total sense if it is sufficiently expensive vs. a maintenance drug.

        The net present value of a patient on a maintenance drug is lowered by the fact that future sales to them are time discounted($50 today is better than a promise of $50 a year from now, though exact disc
        • Consider, by way of analogy, the way that laser eye surgery was not actually crushed by the Glasses Industrial Complex. It is a comparatively 'premium' priced product, compared to a basic pair of glasses every so often(based on breakage or prescription change) for life; but it offers good immediate-cash-in-hand profits for the producer and is valued by consumers for its great longterm convenience.

          Alcon, a major manufacturer of laser eye surgery machines and eyedrops, loses money on the machines, they make it all in the eyedrops.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You mean prozac? Allthough it doesn't produce any additional serotonin, just inhibits it's reuptake into the presynaptic cell. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SSRI

    • Likely depends on whether the effect is continuous, or whether the major difference is made relatively early in development, by pushing the system onto a different trajectory than it otherwise would have followed.

      We already have scads of SSRIs that tweak the seretonin system in what is supposed to be a positive direction. Those, as a class, manage to have clinically significant effects in a reasonable percentage of people with major depression; but (despite broad, fairly easy, availability) have attracte
    • Given past drug events; I wager a little over a year.

      It's all about who has the money and paying who. It's not about the overall success rate.

      --
      Guns don't kill people, the pharmaceutical companies do. Slowly.
    • Happiness drugs are illegal in the United States.

    • by daem0n1x (748565)
      I doubt that the world would benefit from everybody being happy all the time. Happiness is in the path, not the destination. You should do things that make you happy, instead of just be happy and idle.
    • by Hatta (162192)

      Almost certainly never. Transporters are big proteins that have to be folded correctly and inserted into the membrane and trafficked to the right place on the neuron. The pharmacology involved in getting an exogenous transporter into the right places just boggles the mind. Can't be done.

      Now using the DNA that encodes the long form of this protein, that might be thereputically valuable.

  • hrumpf (Score:2, Funny)

    by sgt scrub (869860)

    I was told it isn't length that makes happy. It is width.

  • There is an excelent Stanford course in youtube [youtube.com].
  • Did the study differentiate between "Happy" people and delusional people?

    • by rinoid (451982)

      I have met these ... and those with pollyannaish tendencies (a different vector of delusion really). In the US, a lot of people tend to like folks such as these, take them on as subordinates, and promote them to their peter principle level. Not many adults enjoy the truth I've learned.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      What's the difference?

  • and that's in no small part due to our individual genetic make-up.

    I know this is a semantically pedantic rant, but when I see comments like that, it just makes me want to face palm. Of course our genetic make-up determines who we are. Whether we're happy (as in this study), the color of our eyes, male/female/miscellaneous (Hindu! There are 700 million of us!), how tall we are or whatever, it is our genes that, almost without exception, determine who we are.

    To say otherwise, or feign surprise, is
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday October 18, 2011 @08:59AM (#37748820) Journal
      Given the observed sensitivity, especially but not exclusively neonatal, to environmental influences, and the whole field of epigenetic study, it is neither obvious, nor obviously true, that our genetic make-up determines who we are.

      Thanks to twin studies and other convenient test populations, we've been able to determine that some things are extremely heritable; but that others are surprisingly minimally so. There are even a number of factors(mostly metabolic and neurological stuff that is laid down in utero) where the developing embryo takes enough chemical cues from mommy that a practically Lamarkian pattern of 'inheritance' is seen.
    • They found a Hindu gene? Can you cite? And how close are they to fiinding the pentecostal gene yet?

      • Research suggests that pentecostalism, or "Episodic Parham's Aphasia", is environmentally induced, rather than genetic...
    • Except that there's a lot of question about the environmental factors in many areas of development. Behavior is definitely one area where it has at least some effect. If I'm born genetically predisposed to mild depression, but I have a great family who support me, live a relatively "good" life, and maybe take up some sort of meditation practice, it's less likely that I'll be regularly depressed. I'll still be more inclined to it than someone without the genetic predisposition, but chances are I'll be ha

    • by delt0r (999393)
      It is well known that a lot of what you are is *not* genetic. For example even this study showed that happiness is 60% not heritable. Your genes don't code for all the connections in your brain for example, there is simply not enough genetic material for that. More plain examples are iris patterns and fingerprints. But the list goes on. General Health, exercise and eating habits matter for a lot of things like happiness.

      The problem with its all genetics is that you are required to ignore a lot of data th
    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      I know this is a semantically pedantic rant, but when I see comments like that, it just makes me want to face palm.

      Go ahead. Maybe you'll smack some sense into yourself.

      Whether we're happy (as in this study)

      You mean as in this study where the genetic factor was 30%, leaving 70% non-genetic?

      it is our genes that, almost without exception, determine who we are. To say otherwise, or feign surprise, is just stupid.

      Yeah, almost without exception, except the myriad exceptions that you yourself could probably spend all day reciting if you weren't determined to pursue the "Yawn, I am not surprised at this outcome" line even though your feigned non-surprise is completely stupid in this case.

  • Mob psychology is the echo chamber of common sense. And that's the good outcome. Even worse is nature/nurture where there was never much common sense to begin with.

    Yes, there are correlates on both sides despite one or more mixing rounds of bent functions.

    How does one perform medical epidemiology on an encryption block your kid sister wrote? Let's say your kid sister is Judit Polgar and she's almost smart enough to get this right (having not actually majored in math or computer science), but then you t

    • by psydeshow (154300)

      I'm one of the dozens nodding my head, great comment.

      Play the enlightenment game to its logical conclusions and we *do* get to tease the yolk and the whites apart someday, if we aren't fixated on much more important problems by then. In the meantime, the someone will figure out how to use these studies to make back all the money that went into them, and more.

    • That post was art.

  • I have depression and have had it since I was 16. My parents don't. My brothers don't. No one in my family on either side suffers from it. And yet, SSRI's work for me, not NRI's, DRI's or MAOI's. I wouldn't associate it with genetics based purely on subjective observations.
    • I've been told I'm "abnormally happy" by a few folks over the years, and it has made me wonder - my mother was bi-polar, my oldest sister is also bi-polar, my second oldest sister has schizophrenia, and the third oldest sister is chronically depressed. Is chronic happiness also a mental illness? I have occasionally bouts of sadness or anger, but they never last more than a few hours and I can usually sleep it off. I always thought I had just inherited my father's stoic personality, but sometimes I wonder
  • That's so depressing. :(

  • Here's the caveat in the actual paper:

    We nd evidence of signicant association in both data sets,
    suggesting that the SLC6A4 gene may play a role in explaining subjective
    well-being. While we do not claim that SLC6A4 determines happiness, nor
    do we exclude the possibility that several other genes may also play a role,
    we do think that the results suggest at least one possible causal pathway
    able to account for the inuence of genes on happiness

    Here's a quote from The Economist describing the paper:

    Recent work on both these fronts suggests that happiness is highly heritable . . . so, presumably, the tendency to be happy or miserable is, to some extent, passed on through DNA.

    "Suggests" is a scientific weasel word that can be improperly read by morons as "concludes." Or intentionally misconstrued by journalists because a study that doesn't conclude anything and merely provides a data set that may be useful in the future isn't that interesting and they want clicks. Doing more studies may show a regression toward the mean. A more nuanced classification of the participants may suggest somet

  • Every Night and every Morn,
    Some to Misery are Born.
    Every Morn & every Night,
    Some are Born to Sweet Delight.
    Some are Born to Sweet Delight,
    Some are Born to Endless Night.

    - William Blake

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