Happiness genes located for the first time

A huge study involving over 190 researchers in 140 research centers in 17 countries has located genetic variants associated with happiness and other traits. It is one of the largest studies ever published on genes involved in human behavior.
A man adjusting tie smiling in mirror
Researchers have located genetic variants associated with subjective well-being – how happy a person thinks or feels about his or her life.

In the journal Nature, the international team describes how it analyzed genomic data from hundreds of thousands of people to find genetic variants associated with our feelings of well-being, depression and neuroticism.

One of the researchers, Alexis Frazier-Wood, assistant professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, says:

“We report that we found three genetic variants associated with subjective well-being – how happy a person thinks or feels about his or her life. We also found two genes harboring variants associated with depressive symptoms and 11 genes where variation was associated with neuroticism.”

The team also found that the gene variants are mainly expressed in central nervous system and adrenal or pancreas tissues.

For the study, the team carried out a meta-analysis – that is, they brought together genomic data from many other studies – and used advanced statistical tools to analyze the pooled data as if it came from one huge study of 298,000 people.

Studying genes may help understand predispositions

Previous studies have suggested that individual differences in happiness and well-being might be linked to genetic differences between people. There is increasing interest in the topic as growing evidence suggests well-being is a factor in both mental and physical health.

However, the researchers warn that genes are not the whole story when it comes to determining how people think and feel about their lives. They explain that the environment, and how it interacts with genes, is just as important.

But, studying the genes could help us start to understand why some people might be biologically predisposed to develop these symptoms, they note.

The researchers also hope the findings, which are available for follow-up research, will help to clarify the picture of what causes differences in happiness. They see this breakthrough discovery as just the beginning and believe the variants they have located are but a small fraction of what is waiting to be discovered.

“The genetic overlap with depressive symptoms that we have found is also a breakthrough. This shows that research into happiness can also offer new insights into the causes of one of the greatest medical challenges of our time: depression.”

Prof. Meike Bartels, VU University Amsterdam

Learn about genetic variants that may boost healthy aging.

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