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Beautiful Smart People May Have Bad Genes

Rusty - June 25, 2010

When people talk about someone having or passing on “good” genes they are usually referring to one of two things: physical attributes or intelligence. While it is true that being born with either or both of these advantages should aid in one’s quest for happiness, we all know that the results don’t always align to the expectations. There are plenty of really really good-looking people out there who are unhappy, perhaps only outnumbered by miserable smart people.

Yet we still claim that those are “good” genes.

Now, I’m no scientist (shocker, I know), but there seem to be people out there who tend to find happiness regardless of circumstance (this is perhaps a result of an in-born confidence or a personality that doesn’t take offense or a tendency toward the positive, etc.) Is this “happiness gene” something that can be passed on? If so, why don’t more people envy it?


  1. “Good genes” very often refers to robust health.

    Comment by John Mansfield — June 25, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  2. Quite a number of articles on the “happiness gene” in Google. My favorite line was from a scientist in Tel Aviv who said:
    “We may be a long way off from being able to genetically engineer happiness…”

    In the same article article, the man said he believed genes were only 50% responsible for a person’s happiness. 40% can be controlled and 10% comes from external circumstances.

    Since living the gospel can cause a literal transformation to one’s physiology, perhaps the body is capable of bulking up on the happiness gene during the conversion process.

    Comment by David T. — June 25, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  3. John,
    Sure, okay. But I’d still classify that as a physical quality.

    Whether or not a “happiness gene” exists I think my larger point was that we tend to view physical qualities and intelligence as the more desireable characteristics whereas those things are (probably?) less likely to lead to happiness than an easygoing attitude and an in-born confidence (or whatever). We so often aspire to these things that we think will lead to happiness rather than just aspiring to happiness.

    Comment by Rusty — June 25, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  4. In my experience, happiness has most to do with the people we associate with and our ability to maintain healthy relationships.

    Maybe genes play a role in our ability to socialize, but I wouldn’t discount the influence of family and friends and of premortal personality.

    Comment by Thaddeus — June 25, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  5. I kind of think along these lines when I’m noticing the different natural abilities of my kids. Though it may be a little too early to tell, my oldest, who is 8, seems like he’s going to be a bit of a brain, while his 7-year-old brother seems like he might struggle a little bit with school. But I’m not at all convinced that my oldest necessarily drew the better lot. Speaking as a person who does pretty well in some objective measures of smarts, I’m not at all convinced that having this skill set leads to a better life than having a different skill set, or having no particular skill set at all. Some of my friends and family who aren’t particularly skilled at anything that the world values have lives that I envy because they are living the dream–house, family, hobbies, vacation time, etc.–while I’m still living like a pauper getting my fancy education. Not that I regret the way I’m living, but there are definitely trade-offs.

    In the end, all that will really matter will be relationships and love. From that perspective, the best natural traits to hope for are compassion, a pleasant demeanor, social skills, etc. And I don’t doubt that some of those traits are partially genetically determined. So yeah, I agree, we value the wrong genes.

    Comment by Tom — June 25, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  6. Rusty, I agree that attitude, or a natural positive outlook is more important than genetic atributes like good looks or intelligence. Anything that looks to outsiders like a blessing can also be a curse, though. Friends I have had who were often described as “geniuses” have led very tortured lives. We usually value the wrong things.

    Comment by MCQ — June 25, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  7. Too much of a good thing is often a bad thing. I want my kids to be smart but not too smart, good looking but not too good looking, have friends but not be popular. I feel this way because having to work at things is important to develop life skills. If everything comes too easy, then they’ll have problems down the road.
    Each of my kids comes with a different set of inborn strengths and weaknesses. I do my best to help them. I’m not trying to get them to acheive, I’m trying to help them gain skills that will benefit them in life including: handling failure, how to set a goal, how to practice and get better at something, how to get along with others, enjoy learning, take care of yourself, etc.

    Comment by jks — June 26, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  8. I have pondered on your questions many times since we adopted Hong Mei. Given the fact she was without a mother, abused, and very neglected until we adopted her at age three; I would have imagined she would have had little confidence and be fearful of the world.

    Instead, she is very self-confident with a strong sunny personality. My other kids were breast feed until they were at least two and a half and hovered over. 3 out of 4 of them have some level of social anxiety. How much of these personality traits are inherited? From my experience, I would have to say most/all of it.

    Comment by JA Benson — June 27, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

  9. Right on. I don’t have anything to add except that we shouldn’t be very surprised that the world values the outward and the heart is much more important, should we? I guess, if anything, we should be surprised at how much we have bought into the world’s value system.

    I just don’t think it matters very much what people have, only what they DO.

    Comment by ESO — June 28, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  10. I am not sure how you are measuring happiness. Health and intelligence can pretty much be measured in a standardized manner. Beauty on the other hand, is much more subjective and dependent on popular opinion; nonetheless, it is still somewhat measurable.

    These attributes are also rather stable. Your intelligence or your health are not as variable as your moods (happiness being one of them).

    The tendency is to believe people would be happier if the elements that are popularly believed to yield happiness are there. Per popular assumption health, beauty and intelligence (combined) would yield higher opportunities for longevity, economic success and finding love.

    This is why, most would assume, individuals with these genes could find happiness; but you are right, some simply choose otherwise.

    Comment by Manuel — June 28, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  11. I thought jks’ comment was pretty interesting. I initially agreed with the comment (and still do mostly), but would just tack on my two cents. I feel that being really smart can be kind of detrimental as well. I can also see though, at the same time, that if someone who is really smart likewise is wise, they can offer more to the world. I guess it just really depends on the individual, but I can see that extra “smarts” as something that can be utilized.

    Comment by John Doe — June 29, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  12. Everyone is born with certain temperament traits. They generally define our personality and way of interacting with the world around us. I think part of whether or not we’re happy depends on if our environment is compatible with our temperaments. (Although one of the temperament traits is mood, which refers to if a person is generally positive or negative in their approach to things.)

    I think parents that run into trouble with their children probably have a big clash in temperaments somehow, or don’t understand what their child’s temperament requires.

    Here’s a quick outline of temperament traits:


    Comment by Susan M — July 4, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

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