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Michael Sigman

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The Genetic Reason Some Of Us Are Happier

Posted: 09/28/2011 8:21 am

I once dated a woman who was happy. She slept well, ate when she was hungry and exercised when her body needed it. I had insomnia, ate gallons of chocolate chip ice cream and ran eight miles a day. She felt good when something good happened and bad when something bad happened. I felt anxious no matter what happened. She shared her dreams of verdant meadows and flowing rivers. After a time, I stopped sharing my naked/unprepared for the final exam reruns.

We both had plenty to be thankful for, and she experienced more real-world tragedy than I. I didn't want her to be neurotic, but it seemed unfair that she got to be so much happier.

A new study by UCLA life scientists found that the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is a strong predictor of optimism and self-esteem. Apparently, if you're missing certain nucleotides at a specific location on that gene, you're much more likely to see the glass as half full. If you have 'em, the researchers say, you're likely to have "substantially lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery, and significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms" than your more fortunate brethren.

This survey has been hailed as a breakthrough, but its basic message -- that humans are born with a tendency toward a "happiness quotient" -- comes as no great surprise. Google the phrase "happy gene" and you'll get various older citations pointing to the conclusion that about half of our sense of well-being is inherited. Other scientists claim that a different gene (5-HTTLPR) regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin, aka the "happy hormone."

And then there's the "happy hour gene," which may explain why some of your friends can drink you under the table and still wake up on the right side of the bed the next morning.

Some reacted to the UCLA findings by connecting the news with the desire -- presumably among the happy-gene deprived -- to achieve better living through chemistry. One blogger led with, "Happy Gene Discovered by UCLA Researchers (And It's Not Called Cocaine)." And there was a spirited Facebook thread which confused oxytocin with OxyContin, a powerful narcotic that makes people so happy that if it weren't also highly addictive, we could just put it in the water supply and forget the whole discussion.

I'm convinced, of course, that I possess the glass-half-empty gene -- a certainty that may be evidence I'm right. But the survey results also brought a sense of relief that my default state of mind isn't some kind of weakness.

In fact, scientists behind the UCLA survey emphasize that the effects of the happy gene are far from determinative. If you have the gene for green eyes, you will have green eyes. But the happiness gene appears to be more malleable. Myriad factors -- a mother's nurturing, good sex, close friendships, therapy, exercise and meditation practice -- can improve your oxytocin levels and facilitate optimism and self-esteem.

I mentioned this to a Type-A friend whose basic feeling-state is a cocktail of dread mixed with self-laceration. He was too busy multi-tasking to give a considered reply, but managed to blurt, "No time for sex, meditation or exercise! Perhaps I can do all three at once."

It does no good to fret about our genes. Besides, happiness is in the eye of the beholder. As one of my favorite Genes -- Pitney -- observes in song, "To you it may seem like misery but, for me, this is happy." Self-pity may be counterproductive, but I would have been unhappy growing up in a town without Pitney.

After reading about the UCLA study, I resolved to find out more about how the other half lives. So I visited the Facebook page, Happy Gene. This did not make me happier because I ran head-on into the message, "Happy only shares some information with everyone. If you know Happy, add her as a friend or send her a message."

If you're lucky enough to have the happiness gene, no need to ruminate about the whys and wherefores. You're probably not reading this anyhow. You're having too good a time white-water rafting, marveling at a sunrise or just basking in the wonderfulness of your own company.

 

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