Scientists have discovered a gene that appears to govern how satisfied people are with life. Should those of us without it give up and embrace the misery?
According to the Telegraph, behavioral economists asked 2,500 people how satisfied they were with life, then analyzed their DNA. Those with two copies of a certain variant of the 5-HTT gene were pretty happy — 69% said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with life. But people with no copies were significantly bluer — just 38% were satisfied or very much so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 5-HTT gene governs the transportation of serotonin, the same transmitter that many popular antidepressants help regulate. Says study author Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, "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."
On the one hand, it's not news that genes might influence our happiness — psychologists have long said that people have a happiness "set point," a genetically determined baseline mood. But knowing the specific genes that govern this set point would open up a lot of possibilities. Genetic tests could determine whether someone was at risk for depression (although this might pose some ethical problems if these tests were, say, used by insurance companies). Or, for people already suffering from mental health issues, a genetic profile might help with more targeted therapies.
On balance, understanding the genetic underpinnings of happiness and depression would be a good thing — but we should remember they're not the whole story. Says De Neve, "Of course, our well-being isn't determined by this one gene –- other genes and especially experience throughout the course of life will continue to explain the majority of variation in individual happiness." Our neurotransmitters may influence how we experience our lives — but our lives also shape our brains. And there's evidence that our experiences even change the way our genes are expressed. So making people happy will likely never be as simple as manipulating a single gene.