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Happiness Gene Identified

by Joni Holderman on June 15, 2010

Researchers have identified a “Happiness Gene” responsible for a persistent elevation in a patient’s baseline level of happiness over time, regardless of life circumstances. The gene slows the reuptake of serotonin much the same way some antidepressant drugs do.

In the paper Genes, Economics and Happiness, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of Harvard Business School reported that the long allele of the 5HTT serotonin transporter gene increases baseline life satisfaction by 8.5 percent. Having two copies of the allele increase baseline happiness by 17.3 percent.

Working with Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich and James Fowler from UC San Diego, De Neve reports that twin studies have illustrated a genetic role in the variance of baseline happiness between different individuals. That is, identical twins with very different life experiences reported more similar levels of life satisfaction than unrelated individuals with similar life experiences.

The study explains why some people are relatively happy despite major life problems such as poverty, unemployment or divorce, while others report much lower levels of happiness and even depression when encountering minor setbacks.

The baseline level of happiness or life satisfaction for an individual was fairly consistent over time, with only slight variations based on different life experiences. De Neve and his colleagues theorize that a certain variation of the gene causes the brain to more effectively transport the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in greater subjective feelings of happiness and satisfaction, despite the circumstances.

The 5HTT serotonin transporter gene helps control the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Apparently, the longer allele slows reuptake, resulting in the patient feeling happier longer, much in the same way an antidepressant regulates mood.

Shorter, less efficient alleles of the 5HTT gene have previously been implicated in studies of depression, binge drinking, suicide, autism and panic disorders. In particular, the gene seems to be implicated in the prevalence of major depression after a setback or negative life event. Serotonin influences a number of psychosocial factors including mood, aggression, anxiety, sleep and emotion. In some studies, patients with insufficient serotonin had suicidal thoughts.

De Neve is a doctorial candidate at the London School of Economics who has worked as a research associate at the United Nations and the European Commission. His  previous work included a paper in the Economic Journal that suggesting that the MAOA gene may predict credit card debt.

By Joni Holderman, writepros@hotmail.com, contributing reporter for Mental Health News.

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