Distinguishing happiness and meaning in life from depressive symptoms: A GWAS-by-subtraction study in the UK Biobank


Hedonic (happiness) and eudaimonic (meaning in life) well-being are negatively related to depressive symptoms. Genetic variants play a role in this association, reflected in substantial genetic correlations. We investigated the overlap and differences between well-being and depressive symptoms, using results of Genome-Wide Association studies (GWAS) in UK Biobank.

Subtracting GWAS summary statistics of depressive symptoms from those of happiness and meaning in life, we obtained GWASs of respectively “pure” happiness (neffective = 216,497) and “pure” meaning (neffective = 102,300). For both, we identified one genome-wide significant SNP (rs1078141 and rs79520962, respectively). After subtraction, SNP heritability reduced from 6.3% to 3.3% for pure happiness and from 6.2% to 4.2% for pure meaning. The genetic correlation between the well-being measures reduced from 0.78 to 0.65. Pure happiness and pure meaning became genetically unrelated to traits strongly associated with depressive symptoms, including loneliness, and psychiatric disorders. For other traits, including ADHD, educational attainment, and smoking, the genetic correlations of well-being versus pure well-being changed substantially. GWAS-by-subtraction allowed us to investigate the genetic variance of well-being unrelated to depressive symptoms. Genetic correlations with different traits led to new insights about this unique part of well-being. Our results can be used as a starting point to test causal relationships with other variables, and design future well-being interventions.

Reference de Vries, L. P., Demange, P. A., Baselmans, B. M. L., Vinkers, C. H., Pelt, D. H. M., & Bartels, M. (2024). Distinguishing happiness and meaning in life from depressive symptoms: A GWAS-by-subtraction study in the UK Biobank. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 195(1), Article e32954. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajmg.b.32954
Published by  Centre for Applied Research Technology 1 January 2024

Publication date

Jan 2024


Lianne P. de Vries
Perline A. Demange
Christiaan H. Vinkers
Dirk H. M. Pelt
Meike Bartels


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