Do you know someone that just seems to exude joy and happiness? It may be in their genes. New data shows that some of us are just wired to be grateful, happy and positive. It is the old argument nature or nurture. But here is the thing, whether you have been blessed with being wired inherently for happiness or not, you can now take steps to bring more joy into your life.
What is fantastic to realize is that each day our thoughts, actions, practices and habits weave together the canvas upon which our lives are painted. This undeniable fact allows us a tremendous opportunity to be able to create a life filled with a greater level of passion and interest, and a higher level of well-being. Some of us will just have to be more mindful in learning how to express the core components of happiness in order to bring it into our lives.
Numerous studies have now shown that gratitude appears to be the strongest link to health (and happiness) of any character trait. However, is this trait learned or inherited? Studies with identical twins as well as large-scale genetic studies have established that genetics do play a role in the experience of happiness and depression. One genetic factor that researchers are examining is the gene for catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT). This enzyme breaks down a class of neurotransmitters known as catecholamines that includes dopamine and adrenaline. Catecholamines play a huge role in our mood, behavior, and stress response. Differences in the expression of the gene for COMT results in differences the action of catecholamines in our brains and that results in differences in the response to positive and negative events in our lives. For example, in one variant of the COMT gene is associated with increased sensitivity to pleasant stimuli and decreased sensitivity to unpleasant stimuli. Other studies have shown increased susceptibilities to depression and suicidal behavior in other forms of the gene. These results and others have led to the conclusion that differences in the gene for COMT could play a role in our ability to achieve happiness and well-being. In particular, certain forms of COMT may pre-wire a person for key personality traits associated with happiness such as gratitude and forgiveness.
To evaluate the effects of different forms of COMT on a person’s inherent ability to be happy, researchers conducted gene studies along with a battery of questionnaires to assess the key personality traits. The results showed that individuals with a type of COMT reported greater well-being, less depressive symptoms, and greater tendencies for gratitude and forgiveness. One of the key findings was that a person’s disposition towards gratitude and forgiveness were the main reasons why they showed a higher degree of happiness. These results remained significant after controlling for non-genetic factors (socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, romantic relationship status, parenting style, etc.).
This study demonstrates the contribution of that differences in COMT lead to individual differences in well-being and suggests a potential psychobiological pathway to happiness.
Here are the takeaways for me from this study. Some people are just wired to be happy through showing more gratitude and forgiveness. For those that are not blessed with this pre-wiring, however, it simply means that we need to work harder on learning and implementing strategies that promote gratitude and forgiveness. Detailed studies have shown that expressing gratitude leads to other kinds of positive emotions, such as enthusiasm and inspiration, because it promotes the savoring of positive experiences.
In a previous newsletter, I highlighted how researchers use strategies to increase feelings of gratitude and how that improved mood. Basically, these strategies simply requires us to set aside some time each day to reflect and focus the different passages of our lives or the day and find someone or something to be grateful for and then taking an appropriate action to express that gratitude (e.g., letter, call, donation, gift, or other acknowledgment).
One of my favorite quotes is from Plato, “a grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.” If there is a magic bullet for a great life it is experiencing as much gratitude as possible.
The bottom line from this new study is if we want to live happier, more fulfilling lives, the big keys are to express more gratitude, forgiveness and kindness. For some, these traits are naturally ingrained, for others we just have to learn them and work harder at expressing them more in our lives.
Liu J, Gong P, Gao X, Zhou X. The association between well-being and the COMT gene: Dispositional gratitude and forgiveness as mediators. J Affect Disord. 2017 Mar 7;214:115-121.