Why are happy people so happy

What makes people happy

On the occasion of World Happiness Day on March 20, the United Nations has been preparing the World Happiness Report every year since 2012. In 2018, the organization compared 156 countries. The results were presented recently. For the first time, the report also includes immigrant satisfaction levels in 117 countries. According to this, the happiest migrants live in Finland, Austria ranks 14th here.

The factors for the yardstick of happiness were among other things prosperity, life expectancy, education, corruption and freedom. But the self-perception of the population, the strength of the social environment, trust in government and authorities, equality and low unemployment also play an essential role for the individual feeling of happiness. In recent years, the top positions have been taken by the north - specifically Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. Switzerland has only made it to first place once so far. Austria ranked 12th in 2018.

Sex doesn't make you happy

According to a current representative online survey by the market research institute Integral, four out of five Austrians (81 percent) describe themselves as happy, and just under one in five (17 percent) as unhappy. For the majority of 59 percent, the decisive factors are health, an intact family and a good partnership.

For 46 percent of those surveyed, the family is the basis of personal happiness, and a good partnership for 38 percent. Other happiness factors are a nice home (24 percent), generally having fun and joy in life (23 percent) and sufficient money (19 percent). A fulfilled sex life, on the other hand, is of little relevance, as it only accounts for a happiness factor for three percent. Only a few Austrians consider education (three percent) and beauty or good looks (one percent) to be decisive. A total of 516 people between 18 and 69 years of age were interviewed.

However, the relevance and validity of such surveys is controversial. Basically, there is still the question of whether an individual, complex and subjective state like happiness can be quantitatively measured at all. Researchers are also discussing whether there is such a thing as a happiness gene - DNA is the key to our happiness.

"The term happiness gene is nonsense"

Elaine Fox is Professor of Psychology and Neurology at Oxford University. As early as 2009, together with a research group from the University of Essex, she took a closer look at the gene 5-HTTLPR, a so-called serotonin transporter gene. Serotonin has established itself in everyday speech under the term happiness hormone. The transporter gene is responsible for ensuring that serotonin is taken up again in the neurons of the brain, i.e. that it is practically recycled. This mechanism also plays an important role in the treatment of depression: for example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can specifically block the transport molecule that transports the transmitter substance serotonin back into its stores.

This is where Fox started and found that some people obviously have a more "gene-driven tendency" to see things in life more optimistically than others. Different pairs of images were shown to 97 test persons: negative, pleasant and neutral. The study showed that people with a long gene variant avoided negative image material "conspicuously" while they were particularly receptive to positive material. In the other participants, who carried the gene in two shorter variants, it was exactly the opposite. This could be an indication that there are people who tend to see the good or the bad in life - a "cognitive core mechanism" therefore decides how resilient a person is.

The geneticist and molecular biologist Michael Breitenbach from the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Salzburg, who himself researches the topic of stress, does not deny that. He just doesn't know what to do with the term happiness gene. "Because that is nonsensical. Above all, such words can attract a lot of attention and give rise to misconceptions among people who don't know better. Books are then written and sold under such titles, and millions are made with them," the scientist says angrily .

Statistical correlations only

Triggered not least by the annual World Happiness Report and studies such as that of Elaine Fox ", the focus has shifted to medical-statistical studies in various countries that measure a correlation between the occurrence of the long variant and the short variant and the happiness index in this country ", adds Breitenbach.

It is the same gene that has long been known to exist in different variants of this transporter. One very long and two short ones. "Thousands of human genomes have now been completely sequenced and thousands of correlations have been established between certain genetic markers and certain phenotypes. One of these phenotypes is happiness," says the Salzburg geneticist.

For Breitenbach, there are two big question marks over the whole topic in this context: "Does the prevention of depression stand on the same level as an improved feeling of happiness? And is that a mere statistical correlation or are these things causally related?" Neither can be clearly argued and proven and should therefore be enjoyed with skepticism.

Wealth versus Gross Happiness Product

If being happy may not be so easily inherited, at least one should be able to learn it. But is that really possible? "No," says the Salzburg psychologist and psychotherapist Hubert Oberreiter, "I don't think you can learn happiness. However, I firmly believe that you can learn to lead a life that makes you happy".

In therapy he always feels the moments when people experience positive change. "When someone feels accepted and understood, can live their own life and can express their personality and essence, that comes very close to feeling happy for many of my clients," says the expert.

Happiness researchers actually don't like to use the word luck that much. They prefer to speak of "life satisfaction" or "subjective well-being". Or as Aristotle called it: "full life". While money is a factor here, it has long been known that affluent societies are not automatically happier when their wealth increases. This is why Bhutan in South Asia not only measures economic growth in the country, but also the gross happy product. The residents are asked about their health and standard of living, but also about their knowledge of legends and myths, their level of education and whether they live in harmony with nature. (Anja Pia Eichinger, March 19, 2019)