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?

Where Does Happiness Come From: Nature or Nurture?

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

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Mathematical model shows how the Nazis could have won WWII's Battle of Britain

With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.

Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
  • Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
  • A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Keep reading Show less

The neoliberal era is ending. What comes next?

The next era in American history can look entirely different. It's up to us to choose.

  • The timeline of America post-WWII can be divided into two eras, according to author and law professor Ganesh Sitaraman: the liberal era which ran through the 1970s, and the current neoliberal era which began in the early 1980s. The latter promised a "more free society," but what we got instead was more inequality, less opportunity, and greater market consolidation.
  • "We've lived through a neoliberal era for the last 40 years, and that era is coming to an end," Sitaraman says, adding that the ideas and policies that defined the period are being challenged on various levels.
  • What comes next depends on if we take a proactive and democratic approach to shaping the economy, or if we simply react to and "deal with" market outcomes.

Keep reading Show less

10 ways to prepare for rise of intelligent machines – MIT study

A new MIT report proposes how humans should prepare for the age of automation and artificial intelligence.

An employee cleans around early test robot displays at the Akin Robotics factory on March 15, 2018 in Konya, Turkey.

Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new report by MIT experts proposes what humans should do to prepare for the age of automation.
  • The rise of intelligent machines is coming but it's important to resolve human issues first.
  • Improving economic inequality, skills training, and investment in innovation are necessary steps.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…