The Science of Happiness

What is happiness?  What makes people happy? The answers to these questions are still heavily debated because it is still uncertain what conditions and interventions improve happiness or quality of life. On the 29th May 2012, I attended a talk at UCL on behalf of Dr Eyman, entitled ‘The Science of Happiness’.

There was panel of specialists including:

Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, (Lecturer in Political Economy and Behavioural Science at UCL),Dr Tali Sharot (UCL Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Science), Dr Stephen Hicks (Assistant Programme Director – Measuring National Well-being, ONS) and Dr Gemma Harper (, Chief Social Researcher, DEFRA)


First to speak was Dr Jan – Emmanuel De Neve, who talked about research regarding the genetics of happiness. When economists compared economic growth GDP data per head and wellbeing over the past 4 decades, they discovered that as the GDP per head increased, general wellbeing has remained very stagnant, with a downward trend being noticed the last few years. This trend was noted in data from the USA aswell as developing countries, so this is not a Western phenomenon. So more money doesnt make you happier, but what does?

What does the science say? Interestingly, a genetic link has been associated to ‘happiness’. The gene in question is the Serotonin Transporter Gene also known as S-HTT found on chromosome 17. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in emotion regulation. There are 2 versions of the gene, long and short. The long version is more efficient in producing the serotonin transporter and hence there is more serotonin transporter in the brain. In surveys, it was found that people with the long alleles were generally more satisfied in life than people with the short alleles. However although a genetic link has been found, S-HTT is not the ‘happiness’ gene. It is thought that genetics accounts for 1/3rd of your wellbeing, and 2/3rds belongs to socio economic factors such as having a job, unemployment and inflation, income/income distribution, neighbours and social networks, age, gender, health, marital status, children and religion to name a few. The question on everyone’s lips is do your genes matter? Possibly , however there are many different genotypes so the effect varies and other factors play as big a role as your genetics. More research is on-going in this area.


Next up was Dr Tali Sharot, neuroscientist, who talked about the optimism bias and neuroscience research she was currently undertaking. So what is the optimism bias? This is the tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing positive things happening to us and underestimate our likelihood of negative things happening to us. 80% of us have it. This is only seen when people make predictions about their future or their families future. However, they are pessimistic about other things outside their situation, such as the economy. It has also been found that we still have an optimism bias regardless of negative events, e.g usually if something bad happens, the normal thing would be to alter your expectation which leads to realism, but this doesn’t happen. When people get good news, they learn, when they get bad news they don’t learn, they chalk it up to a bad day. For example, they surveyed a group of college students with high and low expectations. When the students with high expectations did well they attributed that success to their own traits, however when they didn’t do well it was due to things like the exams being hard. Students with lower expectations did the opposite. Without this bias, we would all be slightly depressed. People with mild depression don’t have an optimism bias when they look into the future, they are more realistic and people with severe depression have a pessimistic bias and expect the future to be worse than it ends up being. Optimism changes subjective reality (the way we expect the world to be changes the way we see it.) It also changes objective reality. Optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success. Optimism is also linked to good health. If we expect the future to be bright, stress and anxiety is reduced. Optimism has a lot of benefits.

How do we maintain optimism in the face of reality and how can we test this scientifically?

Well, the left inferior frontal gyrus is an area in the brain that has been found to respond strongly to good news. The right inferior front gyrus responded to bad news, but not strongly. The more optimistic you were, the less likely that this region was to respond to unexpected negative information. If you are unable to integrate negative information, then you will have rose tinted glasses. Scientists found that passing magnetic pulses through the right inferior front gyrus of the brain for half an hour they were able to eliminate the optimism bias, and this could be the potential treatment area for doing the opposite and treating people with severe and depression.

So optimism isnt a bad thing, but we still need to protect ourselves from the pitfalls of over optimism which are as detrimental as pessimism and this comes from knowledge.

The last two speakers talked about wellbeing from a policy perspective. Dr Stephen Hicks, Assistant programme director of the measuring national wellbeing programme by the Office for National Statistics. Their aim is to collate an accepted and trusted set of national statistics to help people understand and monitor national wellbeing. Why measure wellbeing? Well firstky, there is an international demand for this data and other countries request this information. Secondly, there is a policy demand for wellbeing data in order to monitor progress, identification of needs and targeting policies. This information is useful for policy makers to put policies in place to positively affect our well being and quality of life. The third reason is public knowledge; it will be in our interest to know what makes people in our country happy and what constitutes to wellbeing.

Finally Dr Gemma Harper Chief Social Researcher, DEFRA gave a brief talk on wellbeing and our natural environment. The work she does is to do with understanding the social impacts of policy and their effects on wellbeing. They are concerned with the benefits people get from our natural resources. It has been found that access to natural resources, ie where you go fishing, or the park where you walk your dog is positively associated with our wellbeing. Policy is being put in place with the aim of reconnecting people with nature and protecting our biodiversity and as a result, positively affect our wellbeing.

All in all it was a very insightful. So can you make yourself happier? To conclude, even though 1/3rd of our “happiness” can be attributed to genetics, 2/3rd of happiness is down to things in your control such as your behaviour (e.g more social interaction) and your individual thought process. A little optimism also helps! and Sam Sparro has got it down in this video and song, I love it.


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