The genetic lottery can determine everything from your looks to your intelligence, but there's one exception: your happiness
Genetic testing is all the rage these days, and it's not just for people worried about rare diseases anymore. (Should You Get Genetic Testing?) These days, you can find out your ancestry, what specific health risks you have, your ideal diet, and even funny things like why you always sneeze coming out of a movie theater (hint: It's called the photic sneeze reflex and one-third of the population has the gene for it). But, although our genes can predict a large number of our traits, there's one thing they don't predict well at all, according to anew study: happiness.
Researchers followed nearly 1,000 New Zealanders from birth until now (roughly 40 years) and analyzed their lives and genes to try and see how much of what we do can be chalked up to genetics. After tallying up minute differences in genes, they came up with a "polygenic score" based on the number of genomic differences each person had—and it appears to be remarkably accurate at predicting some major things. By the age of 38, individuals with a higher polygenic score had more prestigious jobs, higher incomes, were wealthier, were better at managing their finances, and were even considered more likeable and friendly than those with lower scores.
But one surprising thing the score couldn't predict at all? Happiness.
You'd think that people who had great jobs, lots of friends and plenty of money would be shoo-ins to win the happiness crown but that's not what the data showed. Those people with a higher polygenic score didn't report being any happier or having more overall life satisfaction than their lower-scoring counterparts. (Psst... Here are 25 Health Perks of Being Happy.)
Why this is so, the researchers aren't exactly sure, but it may have to do with the fact that "happiness" is a lot more complicated of a concept than, say, height or reading acuity or even intelligence. A person's ability to find happiness and joy in their lives likely depends on a multitude of interdependent variables that can change based on circumstance, learning and environmental factors. The scientists admit that it's still an emerging field and it only accounts for a small percentage of variability.
Anyway, most of us don't know our polygenic score—and that may be for the best. While "it is important that people recognize and respect genetic scores," said Robert Plomin, Ph.D., one of the authors and a researcher at King's College London, that doesn't mean genetics are destiny. The importance of the score is to help people work with their own strengths and weaknesses to find happiness. People vary genetically and a low score doesn't mean they can't learn or excel in something, he added, but it does mean it might take that person a little more work.
Bottom line? We all come with our own unique strengths and weaknesses, so even if you feel like you've "lost" the genetic lottery in some things, your happiness is still totally under your control. (Try our 7-Step Guide to Happiness.)