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The five big questions of happiness research

What makes us truly happy? Why does happiness often scare us? And what role do our genes play in it? Happiness researchers know the answer.

By AddictiveWritingsPublished 3 years ago 10 min read
The five big questions of happiness research
Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Where do the happiest people live?

Economic crises, wars, violence, hunger, poverty, discrimination -because of such circumstances, it is obvious that happiness is not equally distributed around the world. As part of the "World Happiness Report," scientists have been regularly investigating people's life satisfaction for several years on behalf of the United Nations. According to the "World Happiness Report 2019," the best chances of happiness are in Finland, where people are the most satisfied overall in an international comparison of 157 countries. The inhabitants of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland are almost as happy. They are followed (in descending order) by the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. Germany still manages 17th place, with Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan bringing up the rear on the happiness scale.

Overall, women rate their lives slightly more positively than men. This is also the conclusion - with a few exceptions in low-income countries - of a study by Carol Graham and Soumya Chattopadhyay of the University of Maryland, who took a closer look at how evenly happiness is distributed between the sexes around the world. The authors of the "World Happiness Report 2015" were also able to identify some differences in life satisfaction between young and old, at least. However, these varied significantly from region to region. In most cases, the younger respondents were the happiest, with the level of satisfaction dropping a little toward midlife.

What makes us happy?

What really makes us happy? Family? Friends? Education? Money? Health? In fact, all of these things - and many, many more - contribute to our well-being. This is also shown by the results of the "World Happiness Report": Overall, the researchers attribute a large part of the observed differences between the individual countries to differences in income, social support, and the expected healthy life years. Trust, generosity, and perceived freedom in life decisions also played an important role.

How do you actually measure happiness?

No question: happiness is always a very personal thing. It can hardly be measured objectively, and so researchers generally have to rely on the self-assessment of their subjects. Ideally, they use two different methods to measure subjective well-being: First, they ask their participants how satisfied they are overall with their lives. On the other hand, they also examine the current relationship between positive and negative feelings. In large, worldwide comparative studies, however, both sets of data are often not available for all countries. The World Happiness Report, for example, therefore concentrates mainly on the assessment of general life satisfaction.

However, it is difficult to pick out individual factors and determine their influence. If we look at their effects at the level of society as a whole, it becomes clear that individually they sometimes contribute less to our happiness than assumed. For example, children are a double-edged sword when it comes to happiness: There are certainly many people who consider their children to be the best thing that has ever happened to them in their lives. But on the other hand, they can be the source of stress and problems. Overall, studies show that the difference in happiness between parents and childless people is not particularly great - the authors of the "World Happiness Report 2016" even observe a negative correlation between satisfaction and parenthood on a global level, especially among mothers.

The impact of having children on life satisfaction is also linked to numerous environmental factors such as the financial situation and the compatibility of family and career. For example, a study by Matthias Pollmann-Schult of the Social Science Research Center Berlin shows that only those mothers are happier than childless women who work part-time or can stay at home entirely. Other studies also show that parents are happier when they are really committed to caring for their children.

Money alone doesn't make people happy either - scientists have more or less agreed on this truism. A high income, for example, presumably creates feelings of elation within certain limits at the most; at the latest for people who are filthy rich, a million or so in the bank account hardly changes anything in the personal happiness balance.

But those who are financially secure at least report fewer unhappy moments in their lives, as scientists led by Kostadin Kushlev of the University of British Columbia in Canada have discovered. And a team led by Elizabeth Dunn, also from the University of British Columbia, even claims: "If your money doesn't make you at least a little bit happier, maybe you're just not spending it properly. In the eyes of the researchers, this is done, for example, by investing it in unforgettable experiences instead of material goods, or by making others happy with it.

What role do our genes play?

Even if it may seem surprising at first, our genes apparently have a much greater influence on our happiness than money or family. Researchers assume that they determine a kind of basic level for life satisfaction, which can subsequently change upwards or downwards. Numerous studies now point in this direction. Twin studies, for example, show that identical twins have stronger similarities in terms of their life satisfaction than fraternal twins. Since twins usually grow up under very similar conditions, this suggests a genetic happiness component. And researchers have also been able to observe certain similarities between children, parents, and grandparents.

Large-scale genetic studies support this thesis. Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick in the UK, for example, were able to show that population groups that are particularly genetically similar to the particularly happy inhabitants of Denmark as a whole usually also go through life more satisfied.

Why are researchers interested in our happiness in the first place?

One obvious answer to this question is certainly: because scientists are only human and want to take a look at the good things in life. Apart from that, they hope to be able to better prevent mental illnesses in the future. Because hardly anything arms us better against strokes of fate than a positive attitude to life. Happy people also defy physical ailments more easily and have a longer life expectancy. Many governments now also regard the happiness of the population as a measure of social progress. It has already been discussed whether, in addition to gross domestic product, a kind of "gross national happiness" is needed as a better measure of the quality of life in a country. Some countries have even enshrined a "right to happiness" or a "right to the pursuit of happiness" in their constitutions.

How strongly genes actually influence our happiness is still unclear. This is also related to the complex interactions of genetic causes and environmental factors. Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California at Riverside and her colleagues propose a model according to which around 50 percent of our life satisfaction is hereditary. The other 50 percent is determined by our life circumstances (10 percent) and our own actions and attitudes (40 percent). But there are also researchers who believe the influence of our genes is even greater.

But why do "good" genes apparently make us happier? This question, too, still puzzles scientists, but they do have a few theories: For example, some researchers have been able to observe a striking correlation between our hereditary happiness levels and our personality traits, the expression of which also depends to some degree on our genes. Proto and Oswald, the authors of the "Danish Study," on the other hand, attribute the effect from their study to the fact that the inhabitants of Denmark - and those who are particularly closely related to them - are apparently less likely to have a mutation in their genetic makeup that increases the reuptake of the "happiness hormone" serotonin. A 2016 study also blames specific genetic variants of a cannabinoid receptor for individual differences in happiness.

The examples show: The genetic basis of happiness is complex. Ultimately, an interplay of many different factors will probably ensure that some people perhaps go through life a little happier than others from the ground up.

Why does happiness sometimes scare us?

Hand on heart: We humans are not made to spend our entire lives floating on cloud nine. When we experience extraordinary moments of happiness, we are often aware that our euphoria is fleeting. At some point, we get used to everything, the dream job, winning the lottery, even great love, and "happy" eventually becomes "normal." Researchers call this phenomenon of returning to a relatively stable level of happiness again and again after a particularly positive life event, but thankfully also after a negative one, "hedonistic adaptation" - or the "hedonistic treadmill," because we keep pushing ourselves to become even happier, but ultimately don't get off the ground.

For some people, however, the thought that they could lose their happiness again and fall into a low emotional state, or that they don't deserve their happiness anyway and have to watch out for envious people, causes so much worry that they are downright afraid of it and hardly enjoy high feelings anymore. Scientists have come to call this phenomenon "fear of happiness. There can be many reasons why some people feel this way. For some of the people the researchers have studied so far, happiness was always linked to feelings of guilt in the past, while others were often disappointed in their positive expectations as children.

Anxiety about happiness also seems to be linked to depression: According to some studies, individuals who exhibit a strong tendency toward "fear of happiness" often show increased depressive symptoms. However, it is still unclear what the cause and effect are here: perhaps people who fear high feelings deliberately try to suppress them and fall ill more easily with depression. However, it is just as possible that the fear of happiness is a consequence or side effect of such an illness.

How does happiness manifest itself in the brain?

What happens in the brain when we are happy? Which brain regions, which neurotransmitters are involved in our feelings of elation? Entire books have already been written about these questions; they cannot simply be explained comprehensively in a few paragraphs. The neurobiology of happiness is complex - and like most processes in the brain, we still have a long way to go before we fully understand it. Our reward system certainly plays a central role in our feelings of happiness and the urge to repeatedly turn to precisely those things that make us truly satisfied. It consists of a whole series of brain areas that communicate with each other primarily via the neurotransmitter dopamine.

But what exactly happens in the brain is also related to which aspect of happiness we are looking at. As various studies on humans and animals have shown, it is primarily the ventral striatum - and here above all the nucleus accumbens, a structure deep inside the brain - that becomes active when we experience acute feelings of elation. This area then also communicates more intensively with parts of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This is the case, for example, when test subjects are asked to imagine in the brain scanner that they have just won the lottery.

These brain regions could also play an important role in lasting happiness. For example, studies show that people in whom the ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex respond particularly persistently to positive stimuli ultimately go through life more satisfied. That is, both areas continue to fire tirelessly even when presented with one positive experience after another, so to speak. It's often different for people with depression: Their happiness response ebbs away after a certain amount of time when presented with appropriate attempts.


About the Creator


I’m a young creative writer and artist from Germany who has a fable for anything strange or odd.^^

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