Embrace Joy Chapter 5

Born Joyful or Raised Joyful?

Individual differences in temperament and personality certainly help determine a person's “joy” profile. Varying levels of important neurotransmitters--especially dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—could account for differing capacities for joy. Most people who report being happy have some factors in common: They have high self-esteem, feel some control over the circumstances of their life and they enjoy connecting with others.


In the Genes

Is our capacity for happiness determined at birth? Not completely. Heredity is important, but external factors and our own actions also play a part. Researchers David Lykken and Auke Tellegen of the University of Minnesota studied 254 identical and fraternal adult twins from the Minnesota Twin Registry. Their subjects took the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire, and researchers recorded their well-being ratings. Then, the twins were tested again 10 years later. Comparing the results of identical twins (with the same DNA) and fraternal twins (with 50% of the same DNA) showed that 50% of their happiness can be chalked up to heredity, while individual differences in environment and life experiences determined the rest.


Your Happy Brain Chemicals

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that signal your body to respond to your brain's demands. Those that affect our happiness are involved in other processes, such as addiction, sleep and stress. People are born with different levels of these neurotransmitters, and structural differences in their nervous system that partially account for certain mood disorders, such as depression. The three main neurotransmitters involved in positive moods each have a distinct role:

Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter that connects with the reward centers of the brain. It is central to motivation, pleasure and rewards.

Serotonin regulates mood. High levels are associated with serenity and optimism.

Norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It causes physical and mental arousal and heightens mood.


Other Components of Happiness

Besides our inherited “set point” for a certain level of happiness, what factors determine how much we actually experience joy in our lives? Happiness scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California at Riverside, agrees with the twin study, saying each person's innate happiness “set point” accounts for 50% of well-being. READ MORE

Another important factor that is not fully within a person's control is his or her economic circumstances and access to resources. Lacking basic necessities is a barrier to happiness, and economic status accounts for about 10% of the happiness equation, says Lyubomirsky. The remaining 40% is alterable. We can learn new ways to approach life that will make us happier, regardless of the other two components. LESS


Raising Joyful Children

We know that happy people tend to be optimistic, extroverted, have high self-esteem, and feel that they can control important aspects of their lives. Supporting or fostering these qualities in children will give them a bigger emotional tool kit for building and maintaining a happy life.

  • Display optimism about life events, especially when they pertain to your family.

  • Encourage kids' social life and friendships, and make it clear that your relationships are important to you, too.

  • Give your child sincere praise when he or she does well, especially at a task that's important to the child. If kids sense that you are praising every move they make, large or small, it will lose impact.

  • Encourage independence appropriate to the child's age. As they demonstrate self-sufficiency at various tasks, cheer them on. It is difficult to give up control, but remind yourself that you are giving your child a gift by showing them all that he or she can do alone. Feeling independent and in control are central to happiness.


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