Happiness more than gene deep
The idea that happiness is a genetic trait influenced by early life experiences has been challenged by new research from Germany.
It found feelings of happiness and well-being respond to external factors such as healthy lifestyle, religion and working hours.
The study appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Lead author, associate professor Bruce Headey of the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne, says the findings suggest genes only account for around 50 per cent of well-being, with external factors accounting for the rest.
The researchers used data gathered by the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP), interviewed more than 60,000 people aged 16 years or older, every year between 1984 and 2008.
A large numbers of the participants reported substantial and apparently permanent changes in satisfaction, or happiness, indicating that set-point theory has significant flaws.
The dominant theory in psychology has been the set-point theory, which holds that long-term happiness in adults is essentially stable, or has a set-point, relying on genetic factors, including personality traits moulded and expressed early in life.
Set-point theory has long caused consternation among economists. At its core, it suggests that because happiness levels are both innate and unique to each individual, there is little point in intervening in people's lives on either micro or macro levels, such as through economic policy, which would have little if any long-term effect.
This suggests economists would be better off measuring happiness — also known as subjective utility — indirectly by looking at consumption and leisure choices.
According to the researchers, the SOEP study turns this notion on its head, suggesting that both micro and macro economic policies can have a major effect on levels of individual, and collective, happiness.
Lifestyle choices, partnering options and religion, as well as working hours and social participation were all found to have a significant impact on the levels of happiness of the study participants.
Previously it was thought that these factors could have short-term impacts on happiness, but that happiness would eventually resettle to its set-point.
The researchers suggest a new measure of happiness that takes into account both set-point theory, as well as lifestyle, preferences and choices.
Headey says the Melbourne Institute is currently conducting a similar survey called the HILDA Panel (Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia), which is now in its 10th year.
He says most of the questions posed by the HILDA Panel focus on notions of economic well-being.
"It looks like our findings with HILDA are going in the same direction as the German study."