Storms make oaks take deeper root.

~ George Herbert (1593 - 1633) ~

Is Happiness Just Genes?

June 18th, 2012 ~ Est. reading time: 1 min, 50 secs

How much of your happiness is decided by your genes?

Give up now. Happiness is just a gene thing. Or is it? I was re-reading a 2011 article from The Melbourne Age (May 7) today, in which Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a behavioral economist from the London School of Economics & Political Science labeled the 5-HTT gene as the key to knowing the our baseline of our happiness.

Inheriting two long sets of this gene from your parents sets you up to be happier than others. While, two short versions are supposed to leave you least pleased. So is happiness just genes? Well, the article continues by adding a whole lot of caveats, because, really, that can never be the whole story.

Like other research underlining the influence genes play in influencing our basic happiness, it’s clear other factors matter. Though I’ve come across claims that genes determine anything from ten to a whopping fifty per cent of our happiness levels, I remain somewhat skeptical of the measure.

Not of the science of finding genes, nor even the causal link to feeling upbeat. But to say that genes decide your happiness? That’s almost a bridge too far. What do they mean by happy anyway? Is it about feeling cheery? Jolly? Or, is it the willingness to laugh at your uncle Herb’s nose picking collection? Is that happiness, gene style?

To me, that’s not really an adequate measure of happiness. At least not the way I see it. Put in nerd speak, when it comes to being truly happy, satisfaction is the killer app. As fun as it is, feeling merry with a glass of red sherry and laughing about Uncle Herb’s peculiarities doesn’t come close. If satisfaction is the pinnacle of happiness, then it really doesn’t matter how buoyant your genetically natural mood is. Nor does it matter nearly as much what the economy is doing, or even about a hundred other complaints.

What we need to steer away from is a mechanistic approach to life. The kind of clockwork mouse approach that says, “Ah! Here we are! We’ve found your soul. It was there all along, right under your left foot.” Science is fantastic and I don’t meant to trivialize research. But we do need to question everything for the assumptions that say, you’re basically meat and bones. That genes will sum you up, and decide how happy you’re likely to ever be is premature in the extreme. These assumptions are meant well, I’m sure. But when we presume to assume, the inevitability is that it makes an ass out of u and me (and that can’t make us happy).


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