Research — 20 April 2016

RESEARCHERS have pinpointed happiness genes which may help explain why some people are eternal optimists.

But don’t expect happy pills in health food stores any time soon — the work is at such an early stage, the researchers cannot definitively say if the genetic link means happiness is inherited.

A paper published in the journal Nature Genetics today by international researchers, including from Adelaide, identifies three gene variations linked to wellbeing. It also found two variants associated with depressive symptoms, and 11 variants associated with neuroticism.

The work analysed the DNA of 300,000 people to try to pinpoint a genetic link to people who generally have upbeat moods.

Researchers looked at participants’ subjective wellbeing, which they measured using survey question on life satisfaction, positive outlook and happiness, then looked for common genetic links.

Senior collaborator Professor Elina Hypponen, centre director for Population Health Research at the University of South Australia and a principal fellow at the SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), said the genetic effect had been proven but is likely to be weak. “By far the stronger influences are likely to arise as a result of our life experiences and other modifiable factors,” Prof Hypponen said.

“However, an interesting area for further study relates to the investigation of the joint effects of genes and environment, and it is very possible that genetic variants have a stronger role in modifying our responses to life-experiences.

 “What the study shows is there is a shared genetic component for subjective measures reflective of an individual’s wellbeing, as measured by self-reported wellbeing.”

The project factored in mental health issues, and also five physical risk factors for adverse health outcomes which may affect a person’s mood: body mass index (BMI), ever-smoked status, coronary artery disease, fasting glucose levels and triglyceride levels.

 The paper says the genetic variations alone do not explain the “inherited” component of happiness or depression, and that “to account for even a moderate share of heritability, hundreds — or (more likely) thousands — of variants will be required”.

Prof Hypponen said: “The most important familial factors affecting happiness are related to a balanced and happy family environment. Even if there is a clear genetic component, its influence is likely to be very small.

“However, this study was interesting in pointing out that influences on genes which are expressed in tissues playing a key role in hormone production, were affecting these wellbeing traits in addition to genes which were expressed in the central nervous system.

“Hormones clearly have an important influence on the regulation of mood and stress.”

This article first appeared on ‘NT News’ on 19 April 2016.

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