By Ross Walker

You will often meet people who seem to have a great life, plenty of money, a very happy family – basically they have it all –  but they are desperately unhappy, discontented, and you find out that they are depressed. Very occasionally, you hear people in this sort of situation will commit suicide and reasonably wonder why.

Paradoxically, you see people with a dreadful life, faced with enormous life crises, financial struggles and illnesses but they appear happy and contented. Again you ask the question - why?

I say repeatedly that it is your genes that load the gun and your environment that pulls the trigger and the whole discussion around happiness and depression has been recently examined in a large study published in the journal Nature Genetics, where they mapped the genes for 298,000 people. All had full psychological assessments and the study was performed by 190 researchers in 140 centres in 17 countries and thus, was very extensive.

They basically found that there were three gene variants for happiness, two separate gene variants for depression and 11 other gene variants for neuroticism. 

These gene variants were particularly expressed in the brain, the adrenals and the pancreas. 

So what does this mean? Should we just accept our lot – either happy or unhappy, relaxed or neurotic, you are born that way and there is nothing you can do about it?

Well it is certainly, in my opinion, not that straightforward. 

Your genetic makeup clearly has something to do with it, but there is a new phenomenon of epigenetics where environmental stimuli can switch genes on or off. For example if you have very strong genes for depression and something bad happens, you may react much worse than the next person and develop a clinical depressive episode, compared with someone who has exactly the same circumstances but has the strong happiness variant in their genes.

Also, if something great happens, but you have a strong depressive variant in your genes, you may not be as excited as the person with the happiness genes.

We have all met the withdrawn, less animated person and been (at times) overwhelmed by the ebullient “life’s never been better human” who seems to suck every moment out of life.

Regardless of your genetic makeup, I still believe there are five keys to happiness that we can bring in every day into our existence.

  1.  Learn to live in the moment – cultivate that inner observer who is with you every second and allows you to be present and to derive as much as you can from that moment. What happened in the past cannot be undone and what may happen in the future cannot really be controlled.
  2. Surrender to your situation – rather than feel that you are being carried along for the ride by life, see your life symbolically. See every bad or good occurrence as a teaching tool for you to become a better person.
  3. Practice love and compassion. Show love to the people who will be standing around your bed when you have the heart attack or be crying at your funeral because if you don’t, that probably won’t be. Show compassion for those who you may not have a direct connection to, but who are still suffering and still need some concern.
  4. Practice daily gratitude. Be grateful for all of the good things that occur in your life. A recent study showed that if you wrote down five aspects of your life every day that you are grateful for then your happiness index on psychological screening went up 25%.
  5. Practice forgiveness. The most healing thing you can do for yourself (and not for the perpetrator of your trauma) is to forgive and move on. People who continue to feel traumatised by any situation carry the wound on their sleeve and the wound never heals. Forgiveness, forgiveness and more forgiveness. 

Regardless of your life’s circumstances, you have ultimate freedom to choose how you react. I suggest you all watch the wonderful movie “Hector and the search for happiness”. For me, the peak moment in the movie was the comment made by the Buddhist monk at the end, and I will not tell you what he said, but rather encourage you to watch the movie. 

It is my opinion that happiness is a day-to-day choice, regardless of your genetic makeup.