General well-being could be due to genetic variations, researchers have reported.

Using a large scale study involving 298,000 individuals, Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam researchers have identified the genome that plays a role in how humans interpret happiness.

Professor of Genoeconomics Philipp Koellinger and professor of Genetics and Wellbeing Meike Bartels used data from the Netherland Twin Register and other family researches and found that individual experiences of happiness and overall well-being may be due to inherent genetic differences.

Past studies have focused on how happiness contributes to predisposition to illness and longevity. A study, for instance, has revealed that happiness alone does not improve lifespan.

In 2012, David Cameron also started a nationwide measure of well-being, The Happiness Index, to help the government factor in happiness as part of physical and mental health when formulating policies.

In the lastest study, the researchers explored well-being interpretation while taking into consideration five physical risk factors that contribute to negative health outcomes affecting mood, including smoking, body mass index (BMI), fasting blood sugar, triglyceride levels, and coronary artery disease.

Bartels and Koellinger identified variations that regulate happiness, depression, and neuroticism, which are all influenced by the same genes. Three genetic variations found in happiness are primarily expressed in the adrenal glands, pancreatic system, and central nervous system. Only two variations were found in depression, while neuroticism is linked to 11 genetic variations.

Bartels explained that locating the three genetic variations for happiness opens up further studies that would identify other variants and how this would affect happiness. Bartels hopes that more studies would follow up on their study findings, particularly about the genetic variation found in depressive symptoms.

"Locating these variants will also allow us to better study the interplay between nature and nurture, as the environment is certainly responsible – to some extent – for differences in the way people experience happiness," said Bartels.

Associate professor of the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences Daniel Benjamin agrees that psychological trait is a result of genetics and environmental factors.

"The environment is at least as important and it interacts with the genetic effects," said Benjamin, who is a corresponding author of the study.

The study was published online in Nature Genetics on April 18.

Photo: Petras Gagilas | Flickr

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