Is Our Quest for Happiness Doomed?

Micro and Maxi Fiction

Is Our Quest for Happiness Doomed?


A recent study shows the level of subjective well-being is 70-80% hereditary.

My life is almost perfect. I have a wonderful family, a stable financial state, and can do what I enjoy most – write – without spending my time on a job I hate. My health is decent, as well as that of my close ones. I’m still young and pretty – but happiness is beyond my reach.

No matter how violently I push myself into appreciating what I have, no matter how I compare myself to people who have less, no matter which self-improvement techniques I apply, there’s a worm of anxiety tossing and turning inside me. Whenever I lose my guard, it gnaws on my mind, ruining all my progress on the way to happiness.

Of course, there have been times when I felt extremely happy, but they were short and always related to life events. Overall, I’m just as happy as I was in my childhood and early twenties (teenage years not counted, they were a nightmare), although, objectively; I have more reasons to be happy now than ever. On a scale from 1 to 10, my level of subjective well-being (the scientific term for happiness) has always been about 7.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. From 1 to 10, how happy are you?

What about you 5 years ago? 10 years? 20?

Most likely, your answer will vary from 7 to 8. This is the average. Maybe you don’t do anything to feel that way; you always enjoy life, you lucky one. Or maybe, like me, you make yourself live in the moment and chant words of gratitude every morning to make yourself feel happier, and it still barely helps.

Some people are always happier than others
Some people feel happiness more keenly than others.

Why are some people happier than others?

Surprisingly, this has almost nothing to do with life circumstances. What defines your level of happiness lies in your DNA.

When in 2005 the researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade published a paper on subjective well-being , their assumption about the hereditary nature of happiness was more modest: 50%, with intentional activity giving up to 40% and life circumstances 10%.

A pie-chart showing the causes of happiness

A more recent study by the University of Oslo scientists Ragnhild Bang Nes and Espen Røysamb suggests that the role of genetics in our level of happiness is even more significant: 70-80%, leaving 10% for life circumstances, and the rest 10-20% to intentional activity.

The reason is, our ability to enjoy life depends on personality traits, and those are almost entirely in our DNA. Our personality traits also define the way we react to life circumstances and the activities we choose.

So, is it a sentence? Is our quest for happiness, which drives so many people forward, doomed from the beginning?

 The answer is no. At least, this is what Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon M. Sheldon, the authors of the 2005 study, write. “Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy,’” they say.

Genetics define the range of happiness you can enjoy, but it’s within your power to live in the lower or in upper bound. “People can create for themselves a steady inflow of engaging, satisfying, connecting, and uplifting positive experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood that they remain in the upper range of their happiness potentials,” Sheldon and Lyubomirsky write.

There are working ways to stay in your personal upper range, although they might surprise you.

“Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy,’”

Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon M. Sheldon

1. Work.

World Happiness Record shows that unemployed people are unhappier than those who are involved in any industry. Different types of work provide different levels of satisfaction, with self-employment being the most complicated case, but not having work at all can ruin your chances of reaching happiness at all.

2. Choose activities that fit your personality traits.

Do what you're good at
Do what you’re good at and what you enjoy.

Do what you like and what you’re good at. Money is valuable and important, but in terms of happiness, acting according to your nature plays a more significant role. Don’t listen to others when you choose your activities. Listen to your only self only.

3. Choose activities that are virtuous and meaningful, rather than obsessing about feeling good all the time. 

Hedonism doesn’t make you happy, even if it helps you feel good at the moment. Doing something useful, serving a greater purpose, practicing forgiveness, gratitude, and generosity, are more rewarding than acting for your own pleasure, as they give us competence, autonomy, and connection – core human needs.

This seems counter-intuitive, that you should work and do things for others instead of indulging yourself in luxury to feel happier.

I don’t know how introducing these habits will change your life. We’re all individuals, after all; genetics have taken care of that. But if you believe in science, give it a try.

I will.


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