Is happiness a choice?

Humankind has been invested in the quest for happiness for eras. Ironically, we have made ourselves miserable arguing on how to be happy and whether it is, after all, possible to control how we feel. A destination or a journey? A feeling or a mind-frame? A predisposed trait or a life choice?

Choice is a strong word - the last one you want to hear - if you are going through depression, find yourself in an abusive environment or feel like the universe has turned its back on you. It implies that despite the fact that the environment was not your choice, you have control over it and are wilfully accepting personal destruction. Worse still, it politely infers that it is somehow your fault that you are in a bad place emotionally.

One theory suggests that each person has a specific set-point or baseline of happiness. The level of happiness varies when good or bad things happen. However, it always settles back to the pre-set point.This is called the Hedonic adaptation, a term coined by Brickman and Campbell whose studies shows that both lottery winners and paraplegics return to the same level of happiness years after the major life-event occured.

If we have a predetermined level of happiness, then our genetic wiring and biology assume an important role. Nonetheless, there is no scientific treasure hunt for one single happiness gene. When it comes to complex traits, like our state of wellbeing, several genes will come into play. These genes affect the production, mode of action and interaction of molecules which bring about good feelings. Such happy molecules include the renowned dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Evolutionary speaking we have developed these feel-good molecules as rewards or stimulants for activities that contribute to our survival.

The puzzle is complex, but worry not. Scientist are already on it. Amongst others, De Neve and colleagues have been studying genetic variations of the serotonin transport protein and how it affects life satisfaction and mood. Just this April, a headline-grabbing paper was published by Bartels and Koellinger stating that parts of the human DNA that account for the feeling of happiness were isolated.

These are indeed some exciting news and advancements in our knowledge. Yet, we still haven’t answered our impending question of if and how much control we have on our own happiness. Let’s take a step back. We are saying that depending on whether we win the genetic lottery we either experience life through the happy goggles or we do not. The ‘but’lies here: just as identical twins, who are genetically identical, are distinct persons and have their own personalities and experiences, our DNA is not the ultimate game master of our fate.

In complex traits like this, geneticists recognise the importance of the environment and its interactions with the genetic effect. Indeed, psychologists are saying that the set-point can be reset! In an interesting interview, Sonja Lyubomirsky explains how 50% of the happiness pie chart is taken by the genetic set point and a 10% slice is given to circumstance (marital status, physical health etc …). This leaves 40% to ‘intentional activity’such as acts of kindness, gratitude, meditation, forgiveness and savouring the present moment. Hence, according to some researches, it is this 40% of ‘intentional activity’ that we have control on. There is a whole spectrum of research on how altruism correlates with a healthier state of mind.

If you ask me, I think that happiness is a state of being. More than a passing feeling, it is a state of peace with yourself and those around you. Of course, this does not mean that the death of a loved, or any other unfortunate event, should invoke feelings of happiness. That would be inappropriate. The opinion that I have composed so far is that embracing a mind-frame that allows you to reflect on where the negative feelings are coming from, empowers you to act to alleviate or remove the roots of the problem. Continuous self-evaluation and the rejection of the sense of helplessness and self-pity will help you get to a better point emotionally. Granted, some people will have a tougher time getting there. Still, I refuse to believe that there are persons who are doomed to be miserable forever and ever.

The answer to whether happiness is a choice is not a tick-yes-or-no answer. It is much more complicated than that and is very personal to each and every one of us. Having said that, tending to our mental health should be as much of a priority and responsibility as the upkeep of our physical health.

I don’t know about you, but I like to believe that we have a degree of control.

Author: Stella Arthur