NEW BOOK: Epigenetics & Genetic Happiness - How to Increase Your Well-Being

NEW BOOK: Epigenetics & Genetic Happiness – How to Increase Your Well-Being

These days, there’s a lot of interest in your genes. A bevy of companies offer to trace your genetic background for you and tell you where the genes you’ve inherited came from. Medical companies race to improve DNA testing that will indicate your vulnerability to physical disorders and identify mutations in your genes that may cause illness or disease.

There’s also a growing interest in the study of mechanisms that can switch genes on and off. Although you can’t control your genes directly, you can have some control over which genes are dormant and which are active. That science is called epigenetics.

The word epigenetics was coined back in the 1940s to refer to the influence of genetic processes on human development. It took a while for the topic to attract much attention, but in 2006 over 2500 articles about epigenetics were published.

Then interest grew. By 2010—the year that I brought out my book Happiness Genes: Unlock the Positive Potential Hidden in Your DNA—that number jumped up to over 13,000 publications. Unlike many of those, my books have always been designed to make topics clear to everyday readers.

In 2012, the International Journal of Epidemiology declared “Epigenetics: the next big thing.”[1] By then, I had published OBESITY GENES and their Epigenetic Modifier, offering applications for the new discoveries.

Interest continued to grow, and in 2013, there were over 17.000[2] publications on topics related to epigenetics. In 2015 I published Behavioral Genes: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change based on the abundant research at that time.

Now new research findings regarding human lives and cultures have led to this new book, Epigenetics and Genetic Happiness: How to Increase Your Well-being. We’ll look into ways that you can actually bring about changes in your biological mechanisms to shape the sense of well-being that’s so basic to your personal happiness.

The Components of Well-being

Basically, we humans want to be happy. That’s a natural, healthy, and widespread human desire. Because it’s such a strong desire, we give and get a lot of advice on the matter. Authors and psychologists and advertising executives all try to tell us what will make us happy. Stories in books, films, and television shows give us popular versions of the path to living happily ever after.
If all that advice worked, we wouldn’t have so many people still searching for happiness or complaining that it hasn’t been provided to them. We wouldn’t have collected so many things that don’t make us happy at all. That’s a terrible waste of time, of resources, and of human lives. We need to redefine, reorganize, rethink the question. But most of the time we can’t define what happiness is, much less how to achieve the happiness we want.

An article in Psychology Today described happiness as an “elusive state,” and that’s how it seems for many people. It may be easier to say what happiness is not, or how you don’t attain it.

Happiness is not …according to that Psychology Today report:

Research shows that happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort.[3]

Happiness isn’t even an automatic reward for attaining goals. In 2018, nearly one-fourth of undergraduates signed up for a university class designed to teach students how to lead a happier life. It became the most popular class ever taught in Yale University’s 316-year history. The professor, Dr. Laurie Santos, pointed to one big reason why:

The things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction — a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good‑paying job — do not increase happiness at all.[4]

In fact, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenged the idea that what we often refer to as happiness is even a good thing:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.…
People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity. [5]

In other words, that kind of shallow “happiness” isn’t good for your body. The study found more beneficial patterns of gene expression associated with meaningfulness in life. (In this book you’ll find more about that term gene expression, what it is, how it affects us, and how to use it.)

So what do we mean by happiness?

I’m certainly not going to try to define what things will make you happy. Happiness definitely means different things to different people. Instead, we can begin by considering the entire question in more useful terms.
We can generally agree that happiness is a positive emotional experience. Most of us recognize that we can’t sustain it at a high level all of the time. (That’s probably a good thing. If happiness were constant, how could we tell happiness from unhappiness?)
Back in 1996, after a career as an engineer and inventor of high tech equipment, I sold my business and retired to work and write on the topic of happiness as the purpose of life. I’m still finding that a rich and rewarding topic—one might even say, a meaningful contribution to a happy life.

Well-being

In a lot of definitions of happiness, you’ll see the words well-being. Someone might state that happiness is essential to a sense of well-being, or vice versa—that well-being is essential to happiness.

The term well-being implies a sense of satisfaction and contentment, even of personal fulfillment.

So let’s work with this definition:

Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or good emotions ranging from satisfaction to joy.

Of course things like health, security, and environment contribute to your sense of well-being. But there’s more to well-being than that. Some secure and healthy people don’t seem to be able to find happiness at all.

Some factors that affect your well-being might be beyond your control, but the truth is that a lot is actually under our own control. That doesn’t mean well-being is gained by getting more things. (That can just become a matter of accumulating debris.)

You also don’t need to spend your life battering against things that won’t change. You can put the bad things in perspective and still live with a general sense of well-being.

There are three important things that affect your ability to experience well-being. Understanding these is important, because there are some you can’t change—but there are some that you can.

The first is genetic happiness, which is inherited from your parents. The second emanates from epigenetic (environmental) mechanisms, most of which you have some control over by epigenetic therapies. The third is life itself. Some of what you experience, such as childhood events, are beyond your control but other adventures are yours to shape for yourself.

Genetics, the inherited fundamentals

Genes can be thought of as the blueprints that provide the design for the human body and for how it develops. The word genome—a combination of the words gene and chromosome—refers to the genetic information of any organism. The human genome is often called the “map” of our DNA.

Genes you’ve inherited might or might not be active in your own makeup. As you know, you don’t exhibit absolutely every trait of your parents and other ancestors. When a gene is active, that’s called gene expression. Some genes express themselves and others don’t.

You can’t change your genes, but you can change their expression. That’s because biochemicals called markers on genes (epi-genetic) control what is or is not activated. And you can change those markers that control your genes.

These days, many people in our culture have taken a new interest in their genetic backgrounds. Simple tests give us fascinating information about where our ancestors came from and what mix of backgrounds makes up on own being.

We know now that what we inherit isn’t limited to characteristics such as height and hair color. Your inheritance also shapes your behavior.

Your genetics are inherited, and that inheritance makes up approximately 30 to 40% of your personality. But take note, that’s not even half of who you are.

Even though you might inherit a basic approach to life, that will naturally vary a bit. Your attitude can move up or down, responding to positive or negative events. Those changes in attitude generally take place for a relatively short period of time and then you return to a familiar range of feelings called a set point (more about that in Chapter 2).

Epigenetics, what you can change

In recent years, you might have noticed the sharp rise of interest in an important field called epigenetics. It’s about surprising ways that you can make changes in your well-being.

Your genes are with you for life, but they don’t always control your life. Discoveries in behavioral science have show that our genes can sometimes be turned on or off. Certain circumstances will cause genes to become dormant. Other circumstances cause them to be active, to “express” themselves. This part of human makeup contributes about 60% of our personality. That’s a lot, and you can learn how to manage it.

Scientific studies have shown that physical changes in organisms can be caused by modification of the way that genes are expressed, without any changes in the genetic code itself. That’s exciting news. It explains that we control part of our well-being at a very basic level.

So epigenetics isn’t just a topic for researchers tucked away in universities and other laboratories. It’s important to know about in everyday life. You can’t change your genes. But the way your genes express themselves can be changed. In fact that expression is changed by life itself. And some of those changes can be inherited by future generations.

Culture, which may change you—with or without your input.

Part of our well-being is affected by the conditions in which we live. That doesn’t just mean the obvious. Of course if you live in famine or other horrifying conditions, your well-being will be affected. But there have to be more subtle reasons why, even among well-off nations, there is a consistent inequality in perceived happiness.

Global polls and studies indicate that the happiness in the United States has been declining for at least a decade. We’re not near the top among developed nations. We come in about 14th among countries with modern economies.

There has to be some reason why, as a Time report puts it:

Another year, another report saying that the Nordic countries are the happiest in the world.[6]

In Chapter 4, we’ll look at the reasons why the United States doesn’t turn up at the top of lists of happiest countries. What’s different between the cultures we live in here and those of other nations?

Taking charge of your own well-being

[1] Discussed by Shah Ebrahim.
[2] According to Carrie Deans and Keith A. Maggert in Genetics.
[3] From “Happiness” in Psychology Today.
[4] Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness, New York Times Jan. 26, 2018
[5] Smith’s article in The Atlantic.
[6] From the “Happiness Report” in Time.