What makes us happy? From pets to chocolate and from exercise to art, helping other people, and getting enough sleep, science offers plenty of answers. There's no denying that some people just seem to be happy and positive regardless of what life throws at them, while others may be resilient fighters, but never quite seem to bask in the warm embrace of simple contentedness, however. What causes those differences? A mega-study that involved 190 researchers, 140 research centers, 17 different countries and a whopping 298,000 study participants may be able to shed some new light on this age-old question.
Happy Genes Identified!
The study, which was — as you can see from the sheer numbers involved — no ordinary meta-analysis, took a very close look at the genomic data of what can ultimately only be described as "a whole heap of people", in order to find out which genes are responsible for the emotional tendencies that dominate our lives. The team looked into genes that were associated with depression and neuroticism as well as those linked to happiness, and managed to find them!
As the study team analyzed data from numerous previous studies, they had to make use of some of the most advanced statistical tools available today. With genetic and epigenetic research being at an all-time high, the researchers had plenty to look at. This meta-analysis of previous studies wasn't your typical "maybe we can conclude this from that, given lots of further research" scientific study. Rather, the huge study sample means that this research, published in the journal Nature, is pretty authoritative in its conclusions.
The study team made it quite clear that even their huge study doesn't mean we now have all the answers, however: the environment and how our genes interact with it (a relatively new study field called epigenetics) are likely to play as big a role in our overall feelings of wellbeing as the identified genes themselves. In addition, there is the possibility that many more, as yet unidentified, genes could also play a role in our emotional states.
Alexis Frazier-Wood, assistant professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and one of the researchers, excitedly shared: "We report that we found three genetic variants associated with subjective wellbeing — 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."
Could The Study Help Us Treat Depression?
Besides being present in the Central Nervous System, the team surprisingly found that the genes responsible for determining how positively we tend to view life were mostly located in the adrenal and pancreas tissues. Not only does the study explain a lot about human nature, it also offers tremendous hope. Only by knowing which genes are are responsible for both happy and depressed tendencies can we truly begin to help people who are genetically disposed to having a more pessimistic, neurotic and depressed life outlook feel more content.