H = S + C +V*

H: Enduring level of happiness
S: Set Range
C: Circumstances of your life
V: Factors under your voluntary control

Enduring level of happiness differs from momentary happiness in such a way that the latter can easily be increased by any number of uplifts, such as a cup of wine, a comedy film or a hot bath. Your enduring level of happiness, on the other hand, is partially inherited. The studies conducted in the 1980s conclude that the psychology of identical twins turn out to be much more similar than that of fraternal twins, and the psychology of adopted children turn out to be much more similar to their biological parents to their adoptive parents. All of these studies – and they now number in the hundreds – converge on a single point: roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance*.

Fortunately high heritability doesn’t determine how unchangeable a trait is. I would have been doomed if we were destined by our genes because I come after a line of depressed women in my family. If you’ve read the story of my Grandma in my blog, you’d have known that she was an amazing woman. Grandma turned severely depressed after losing her first three baby boys to diseases. She couldn’t sleep and frequently had anxiety attacks. These symptoms went away after her baby girl survived. But Grandma continued to exhibit quiet signs of what I now recognize as depression. Back then depression wasn’t recognized as an illness. One was supposed to get rid of it as if it were just a bad headache. Grandma dealt with it by keeping herself occupied. She had a family of ten to take care of and truly had little time to dwell on her negative emotions. However it did come out explicitly whenever the tension escalated between her and my aunt’s husband. My mother’s depression was marked by her anger, explosiveness and violence. My aunt who passed away a couple of weeks ago was a more positive and lively person. But years of being sandwiched between her mother and husband took its toll on her. She cried a lot and slipped in and out of episodes of dark mood. Aunt started to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease over twenty years ago. Over time, her condition deteriorated. When I saw her three months ago, she was merely a pile of bones, completely unresponsive and immobile, and fed through a tube.

I used to suffer from the winter blue, just feeling low without specific reasons. I handled it the same way Grandma did: keeping busy. When I was happy, I could be really positive, full of energy and enthusiasm. But if something tilted that delicate balance, it was hard for me to bounce back quickly. The negative emotion like a virus had to run its course.

You may say I don’t have very good psychological genes. As a Christian, prayer consistently helped me to redirect myself every time I sensed that my mood was heading in the wrong direction. But now I’ve found that positive psychology points the way toward a secular approach to noble purpose and transcendent meaning*, which enables one to increase her enduring level of happiness. I’ll write about the other components of the equation in my later posts.

*Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman