To answer the question, psychology professor David Lykken at the University of Minnesota conducted studies with fifteen hundred pairs of twins. Out of all the pairs, seven hundred were identical twins, meaning their genetic material was identical. Lykken conducted a survey investigating the degree to which these adult twins were satisfied with their lives. The identical twins responded similarly more often than fraternal twins (who came into the world with different sets of genes). Lykken went one step further. Out of the 700 identical twins, sixty-nine pairs had been separated shortly after birth and grew up in different families. How did they answer the happiness question? It turned out the answers of these pairs were almost as similar as those of the identical twins who grew up together. Lykken concluded that well-being and happiness were at least partially inherited*.

So we are not destined by our genes. Stefan Klein wrote in his book “The Science of Happiness” – ‘There is no part of the body in which the external stimuli influence gene functioning as much as in the brain and the nervous system, those parts of the body that in the final analysis determine happiness and unhappiness.’

Other research and surveys conclude that the proportion of people with happy, unhappy and neutral dispositions is about the same, a third for each.

Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that people whose right brain half is more active and who have less control over their negative emotions tend to be introverted, pessimistic and often suspicious. But people with s significantly stronger left prefrontal cortex are usually self-confident, optimistic and often in high spirits*.

The control of negative emotion is one of the secrets of happiness. With practice, we are less likely to react negatively to start with, because the connection between stimulus and the emotional response to it is weakened. Second, we strengthen the ability (of the prefrontal cortex, especially) to restrain such emotions, should they be released after all. For like most accomplishments, conscious control of the emotions has to be practiced. And practice, in turn, changes the structure of the brain – with the result that over time we learn to deal more easily with our own feelings*.

A few years ago, I went through a period of life that was dominated by negative emotions. I viewed the challenges I was faced with overwhelming and sometimes even lost the hope of ever being happy again. I told myself to accept things as they were instead of wanting more, and then all the pain would go away. But passivity and withdrawal almost never works.

Without knowing at the time how the following activities would initiate the complicated process of the rewiring of the brain, I decided to get busy instead of focusing on the things I couldn’t change,and in turn my state of mind altered gradually:

  • Get in touch with my true self and figure out what I really want out of life. Then take action to pursue it.
  • Follow a regular workout routine. Exercise has proven the surest means of raising our spirits.
  • Develop fun and thought-provoking hobbies. Activity makes us happier than doing
    nothing. We are more likely to dwell on our negative feelings when idle.
  • Enjoy and appreciate little things in life. An alert mind increases a sense of well-being even when it’s only observing*. It’s amazing how intriguing our surroundings become
    when we are willing to slow down a bit and just pay attention instead of rushing through
  • Strengthen relationships to others especially those of my family. The attention we pay to those close to us redounds to our own happiness.

Even though we may be born with a happy, unhappy or neutral disposition, with practice, we have at least some ability to influence the multistep process of data processing that lies between a stimulus and our response to it* and thus be better equipped to mitigate the negative emotions that constantly rob us of the happiness we desire.

The data collected from two groups of people comprised of lotto winners and paraplegics demonstrate that a year after hitting the jackpot and losing their legs in the accident, the two groups are about equally happy. For a few weeks, the lottery winner is on cloud nine while the paralyzed person mourns the loss of freedom of movement. But it doesn’t take long for the new BMW and bigger house to become the norm. On the other hand the accident victim in the wheelchair also gets used to the help of others. Soon things start to settle.
The world as we experience it is created primarily in the mind. In order to change our behavior or emotions, the brain has to change, which means changing hundreds of connections between the synapses in our brains*.

Happiness isn’t the opposite of unhappiness since different parts of the brain controls positive and negative feelings. The absence of suffering doesn’t guarantee happiness. Happiness is a process, something to strive for. The lotto winner and paraplegics study drives home the point that money should never be one’s primary pursuit. In fact an important source of happiness is the optimal development of one’s talents. Follow your heart and passion, and happiness shouldn’t be too far behind.

Happiness isn’t a coincidence or divine gift but is given to him who makes optimal use of the available possibilities**.

* Science of Happiness by Stefan Klein
** Duchenne 1991