Where Does Happiness Come From: Nature or Nurture?

Nature versus nurture is back, and this time it's about happiness. Do our behaviors make us happy, or does our brain?

In today’s world, it seems as though everyone is searching for happiness. We’re looking for it when we struggle to achieve that elusive work/life balance, just as we look for it in trying to establish a regular gym or yoga habit. At root, all of us are trying to answer that essential question — how exactly do we get to the good life?

When researchers talk about happiness, they tend to come from one of two schools of thought: behavior or biology. While some view happiness as a variable state that can be influenced by the choices we make in our lives, others see it as fundamentally a byproduct of our physical brain structures.

A recent study, spearheaded by Assistant Professor Kelly Goldsmith at the Kellogg School of Management, puts forth evidence in favor of the first theory. Goldsmith and her fellow researchers measured study participants’ levels of happiness after they were asked one of three types of questions. They found that the participants who were asked each day whether they had done their best to be happy ended up with a greater gain in overall self-reported happiness when compared to the control group or the group that was asked to simply report back on their happiness levels.

Goldsmith suspects from the research that triggering someone’s sense of control and agency is very important to how happy they ultimately feel. Practices like putting up Post-it note reminders and questions could be helpful for the average person looking to try out this study in their own lives.

But intention is only part of the answer, since biology also plays a role in happiness. Another recent study by Dr. Wataru Sato of Kyoto University may have just found the physical location of happiness in the brain. Using MRI scans, Sato’s research correlated greater levels of happiness with larger gray matter volume in an area of the brain called the precuneus. The precuneus is known to be important for self-reflection and parts of consciousness. So could happiness really be all about brain mass?

Maybe the real answer is a little bit of both. Sato’s research noted that certain behavioral practices, such as meditation, had the power to change the precuneus region of the brain. It could be that changing our patterns and habits help us tap into the mysterious biological forces that control our sense of well-being, purpose, and happiness. Nature and nurture are sometimes two sides of the same coin.


Stefani is a writer and urban planner based in Oakland, CA. She holds a master’s in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in Human Biology from Stanford University. In her free time, she is often found reading diverse literature, writing stories, or enjoying the outdoors. Follow her on Twitter: @stefanicox

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