the power of genes

What influences well-being?

You could answer this with a pie chart and with hard numbers as Sonja Lyubomirski* first did in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (2008), but it seems eventually she came to regret stating things so “scientifically.” She had written:

Studies show that 50% of individual differences in happiness are determined by genes, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by our intentional activities.” (page 20-22)

I encountered the reference to her research in another author’s book on loneliness and was annoyed at the information that was offered: “This suggests that a lot of happiness depends on your actions.” I couldn’t help think how childhood and upbringing can have a strong hold over someone’s adulthood—which, according to the above, is assigned only 10% importance. Doesn’t seem right.

So, as I researched Lyubomirski, I discovered that in 2019 she tried to take her words back. She stated at a plenary in the 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology in Melbourne, Australia that she regretted:

  • “Not clarifying that the three factors are not independent, additive, or non-overlapping”
  • “Pie chart widely misinterpreted– for example, percentages wrongly used to describe individuals, not percent variance accounted for”

And the bottom line is:

  • “There are at least three major influences on happiness: genetics, circumstances, and activities” (these are not non-overlapping)
  • “All three factors exert sizable influences on well-being”
  • “The pie chart calls for future research to test whether practicing intentional activities can increase happiness”

Now, I have to read her book. It is obvious that a lot of happiness depends on the actions you take—I think most people can come to that conclusion—but the fact that genes also have such a huge effect was surprising to me.

* Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Originally from Russia, she received her A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from Stanford University.