Causes of disparity in happiness

Department: Biological Psychology
Research area/-theme: happiness, behavioural genetics, twin research
Researcher: Meike Bartels

If you ask a person what he or she would most like to be, the answer is usually ‘happy’. 

In recent years, the issue of happiness has been examined from the perspective of various disciplines, predominantly by comparing average happiness scores. Findings from these investigations include that on average, people who are married or in long-term relationships are more likely to be happy, have more friends, earn more, consider themselves more attractive, be tall (but not too tall), and be religious. Furthermore, the Netherlands is top of the UNICEF list of countries with the happiest children.

The happiness research conducted by URC professor Meike Bartels goes one step further. Rather than looking at average scores for groups, she examines disparities in happiness among people. For example, not all married people are happier than single people and not all Dutch children are happier than English children. The main question of her research is why is one person happier than another?

By collecting information about the happiness of young and adult twins included in the Netherlands Twins Register and their family members, a picture is painted of genetic and environmental factors that influence happiness levels. This study has shown that approximately 40% of disparities in happiness among people are caused by genetic factors. By combining data from research groups around the world, an attempt is being made to inventory the genetic factors that play a role in happiness levels. The next step to this large-scale study will investigate the interplay between these genetic traits and environmental factors. Eventually, the results will be combined in order to construct a new model for the causes of disparity in happiness. This model focuses on issues such as the degree to which happiness correlates with personality and self-control, as well as examining a possible connection between happiness and activity in certain areas of the brain and autonomic nervous system, whilst also taking into account genetic differences between people.