The Pursuit of Happiness

From Outside Magazine: All Feeds
December 4, 2013 - 2:06pm

The tendency to be happy or not is an inherited trait, but the good news is that this is less than half the story. According to a 2012 study of identical and fraternal twins conducted by a team of scientists from top universities around the world, only about a third of our happiness level is determined by genes. The rest is up to us. Looking for drivers of well-being, the researchers zeroed in on a gene that aids in the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In the biochemistry of mood, serotonin plays a role much like the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, bringing brightness and cheer, and regulates stress levels, sleep, and pain, among other things. The study found that those who’d inherited longer variations of -the gene had a slight increase in overall happiness, but surveys of the twins suggested that genes get only a minority vote when it comes to mood. Other research indicates that how happy you are can influence the ways your genes are expressed. In a 2013 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of North Carolina reported that happiness levels have powerful effects on genes and our health. But there was a catch: the specific kind of happiness mattered a lot. The unselfishly happy, whose feelings of well-being involved a deep sense of purpose in life, had a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. Happy hedonists, meanwhile, wrapped up in materialistic pleasures, had weaker immune systems, resulting in inflammation that can lead to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. “Even pleasures that seem virtuous, like looking at a sunset, can be hedonic, because they involve one’s own emotional gratification,” explains UCLA professor of medicine Steven Cole, the senior author of the study. “The real distinction is whether your happiness is tied into purpose and meaning outside yourself.” Bottom line: like so many things, how happy you are comes down to how you choose to live your life. We’ve rounded up the latest beta on how to show your DNA who’s boss. {\%{"image":"\_fe.jpg"}\%} 1. Rise with the Sun Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Less than that and we’re crankier, dumber, sicker, and even fatter. But that’s no excuse to sleep in. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that more time awake in daylight increases your levels of vitamin D, which the body synthesizes when skin is exposed to the sun. The vitamin, according to Boston University medical researchers, gooses genes that play a role in resistance to autoimmune and infectious diseases, as well as cancer. Think you’re wired to sleep late? Think again. Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston looked at variations in a gene responsible for circadian rhythms and found differences in natural wake times of only an hour tops. 2. Get Dirty Dirt may be the new Prozac. Working in soil raises your spirits, in part because you pick up cheerful germs while digging. University of Colorado researcher Christopher Lowry injected mice with dirt-dwelling Mycobacterium vaccae and found increased serotonin in the critters’ prefrontal cortex. Getting your own dose is as easy as taking a walk in the wilderness or planting something. You don’t need to wait until spring: even in the dead of winter you can sprout basil seeds in a pot on your sunniest windowsill. 3. Make Every Day Saturday You don’t need science to tell you that you’re happier on the weekends, but a 2010 University of Rochester study of 74 adults explains why that’s so. It’s not just time away from a desk; it’s the freedom to make choices. “Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual’s well-being,” wrote psychologist Richard Ryan, the study’s author. Ryan and his colleagues also found that you can get even more out of your time off if you spend it with people you care about and get outside, which “adds to vitality.” Bonus: you can get doses of that weekend buzz on weekdays, too. Here’s how: Start a regular run or bike ride with coworkers. You’ll build relationships while releasing endorphins. One night every week, schedule at least two hours away from home, but don’t plan anything. The spontaneity and freedom will give you a TGIF buzz. Pitch a tent in a nearby patch of woods. Just get up in time t

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