EXPERTS DEBATE WHETHER THE KEY TO HAPPINESS LIES IN THE GENES
The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.
—Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (1954)
Philosophers ponder it, poets and songwriters celebrate it. Moviemakers and playwrights exploit it and politicians routinely promise it. Across the centuries, it has been sought more fervently and been more tantalizingly elusive than any other human quality. But now it turns out that a lot of the energy poured into the age-old pursuit of happiness may have been largely a waste of time. Two University of Minnesota researchers claim to have discovered that an individual’s capacity for happiness is genetically pre-set. And while day-to-day experience will cause it to fluctuate, sooner or later it always returns to its programmed
level. Some social scientists endorse that theory but others are skeptical. “I think what’s going on around you is more important than what you were born with,” says Alex Michalos of the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.
The idea that a genetic thermostat controls how much happiness an individual can sustain—different people have different levels—is the work of behavioral geneticist David Lykken and psychologist Auke Tellegen. They studied more than 1,300 sets of twins, some identical and others fraternal. Identical twins have matching genes while fraternal ones are no more similar genetically than ordinary siblings.
The results, Tellegen says, showed there was little variation in the perception of well-being between identical twins brought up together and those raised apart from one another. In fact, he says, highly educated twins in positions of prominence were no happier
than brothers or sisters who quit school and took menial jobs. Because there was no such correlation among fraternal twins, the researchers concluded that at least part of the explanation had to be genetic. Happiness, says Lykken, appears to be about half inherited and half a reaction to life’s ups and downs.
Scientific reaction to the so-called genetic set point theory has ranged from qualified support to outright dismissal. UNBC’s Michalos says happiness is influenced by a lot more than genes. University of Michigan social psychologist Jennifer K. Crocker concedes that a happy set point probably exists but “how that works I don’t think we understand.” Psychologist Howard Weiss of Indiana’s Purdue University accepts the set point, but “we’re not able to say how much is genetically determined and how much isn’t.” But Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research doubts that happiness is genetic. “It’s clearly very culturally conditioned,” he says.
The academic debate over the nature, origin and mysteries of happiness (and what, if anything, genes have to do with it) has become both worldwide and spirited. Happiness was on the agenda at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Toronto in July. In August, about 100 social scientists from 18 countries showed up at UNBC for a world conference on the quality of life. After a century of plumbing human misery, psychology has apparently discovered that happiness and joy are more fun. “Every year for the last 20, there have been about 1,100 published scientific articles related to happiness, quality of life and subjective well-being,” says Michalos, who taught philosophy at Ontario’s University of Guelph for 28 years. “There’s an enormous industry out there.”
But professional curiosity about well-being had begun before that. In the 1960s, European social scientists introduced the World Values Surveys, an attempt „ to measure the relative happiness of different coun« tries by polling their citizens. The surveys, which have ^ expanded since the 1995 edition to include 50 nations I around the world, is co-ordinated by Michigan’s Inglejr hart. Some of his conclusions: ï • Happiness rises steeply with economic develop£ ment “until you hit roughly the level of Ireland. The Irish are happier than the Germans even though the Germans are twice as rich.”
• Above the level of Ireland, there is hardly any relationship between prosperity and happiness.
• “There is evidence that people who are happy and satisfied are significantly likelier to live longer.”
• “If you got rich in the last month, you feel terrific. But after 10 years, being rich probably has no impact on your happiness.”
• “The Japanese are getting happier, taking a little more time to smell the roses.”
Why do Scandinavians score at the top of the happiness scale? ‘They are small, manageable societies, homogeneous and prosperous, where
At some point in his 25-year career of treating patients and teaching, says Boston-born psychologist Michael Fordyce,“it occurred to me that happiness is the ultimate goal in life, and everything we do is just a way to get there.” So Fordyce, now a professor of psychology at Edison Community College in Fort Myers, Fla., began to study the character-
1. Be more active and keep busy.
2. Spend more time socializing.
3. Be productive at meaningful work or pursuits.
4. Get better organized and plan things out.
5. Stop worrying.
6. Lower your expectations and aspirations.
7. Develop positive, optimistic thinking.
8. Get present-oriented.
istics of happy people.The result: a 14-point road map to happiness, the core of a course he teaches to about 1,000 students each year. “My assumption was that if ordinary people could learn to do any of these things better, they would become happier, and my research indicates that for the vast majority, this holds true.” The Fordyce formula:
9. Work on a healthy personality.
10. Develop an outgoing social personality.
11. Be yourself.
12. Eliminate negative feelings and problems.
13. View close relationships as the number I source of happiness.
14. Value happiness.
The thing to remember, Fordyce says,“is that happiness is a way to travel through life, not a place to arrive.”
life is predictable,” says Inglehart. “They have advanced welfare states and life is pretty good.” Based on that research, he adds, “I doubt that happiness is genetic.”
But to ordinary people, the ongoing challenge is not about heredity but about dealing with life’s ups and downs. And the natural desire for more ups and fewer downs, perhaps fed by hard times, may explain the phenomenal growth in the popularity of feel-good books, tapes, videos, seminars, lectures, spiritual renewal centres and retreats, and self-help programs in the past 15 years. “All this illustrates the difficulties people have of comprehending rapid change,” says University of Toronto political scientist Neil Nevitte. “In the process of trying to understand, there is a search for the meaning of life.”
That search has led millions of people around the world to books by writers who have become international celebrities. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind (The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old) turned Deepak Chopra, a Boston endocrinologist, into a best-selling author, TV lecturer and head of a California centre for mind-body medicine. James Redfield’s New Age treatise The Celestine Prophecy has been on best-seller lists for months. M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) lectures widely. Any reader who wants more after finishing Barry Neil Kaufman’s hugely successful Happiness Is a Choice can check into the author’s Option Institute, an emotional makeover centre in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts (page 57).
Ross Gorrie, manager of Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore (170,000 volumes in stock), says books on topics such as selfesteem, happiness and spirituality “used to be a rack, but now they take up half the second floor. This product exploded about five years ago and it continues to climb, not as steeply as it was, but still growing.” Gorrie says buyers “are from every walk of life, but if I had to guess, I’d say more females than males.”
The thirst for spiritual road maps is evident even on the Internet where on-line publishers peddle thousands of titles—Become Happy in
Eight Minutes, The 10 Secrets of Abundant Happiness, The Alchemy of Happiness, 14,000 Things to Be Happy About—even Animal Happiness. His folksy TV chats on PBS about spirituality have made Texas-based John Bradshaw a self-help icon—and the host of a daily TV talk show beginning this month. Across the continent, hundreds of agencies offer upclose-and-personal programs like the Torontobased Personal Resource Centre does, which
urges prospective customers to “re-energize and feel terrific about yourself.”
If it all sounds like a new religion, it may well be something like that. Says the U of T’s Nevitte, who gathers the Canadian data for the World Values Surveys: “It turns out that where such things as church attendance rates are actually falling, the number of people who say they think about the meaning and purpose of life is actually on the increase. And it’s on the increase in those countries that are the most secular.”
Social scientists agree that the ultimate reward for people in search of life’s meaning
A WORLD OF HAPPINESS
Canadians ranked 21st among 38 countries included in a World Values Surveys published in 1995. The percentages are based on the number of respondents who chose part 3 of the following question: “Taking all things together, would you say you are: (I) not at all happy, (2) not very happy, (3) quite happy or very happy.”
COUNTRY % HAPPY
South Korea .............78.9
Czechoslovakia (former) ... .65.7
SOURCE THE WORLD VALUES SURVEYS
and purpose is so-called subjective well-being—in other words, happiness. To most investigators, happiness and self-esteem are inseparable.
“Happiness comes from within, and you have to have a good self-esteem that comes from within in order to be able to appreciate the things and the people around you and, most important, yourself,” says Dr. Simon Davidson, chief of psychiatry at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. “That gets into the whole dilemma where some people’s self-esteem comes entirely from outside—they only feel good about themselves if people are telling them what good folk they are.” It is a view shared by Michigan’s Crocker. “If you’re hanging your self-esteem on your competence or on love or on acclaim, then you’re vulnerable,” she says. At the same time, she adds, appearance is no barrier to happiness—neither the physically unat,be
tractive nor the disabled are particularly hnnU hllupr<:
prone to low self-esteem. Zmeve7«Zóf,ife’
In last May s issue of Psychological Science, David Myers of Michigan’s Hope College and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, both psychologists, co-authored an article titled, “Who Is Happy?” From their own research and that of others, they offered these insights:
• No time of life is notably happier or unhappier than any other.
• There is little difference in happiness between black and white Americans.
• Women are about as happy as men.
• Wealthy Americans are
only slightly happier than their poorer compatriots.
• Happy people have four inner characteristics—self-esteem, a sense of personal control, optimism and extroversion.
• Lottery winners are initially elated but the feeling soon wears off.
• Happiness requires a willingness to adapt and to have goals.
Having realistic goals, says Dr. Isaac Sakinofsky of Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, is the tough part. “Mostly, happiness is being content; being discontent is unhappiness. If you’re happy with what you can actually attain, then you have reached a level of contentment, a kind of emotional equilibrium.” The difficulty, says Davidson, is that “as you grow older, there are increasing expectations on you, you face increased responsibility, you’re under a bit more stress and you get a whole lot more serious. Now, if you could learn to ‘get serious’ happily, maybe life itself wouldn’t have to be as serious as it is for some of us. You have to get serious about happiness.”
The happiest people, says UNBC’s Michalos, “actually think about being happy and can tell you things they do to be happy. There’s one tradition in philosophy that says if you want to be happy, don’t think about it. Those guys turned out to be wrong.” For
social scientists, Michalos says, the pursuit of happiness is “the oldest game in town. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, what you would typically hear was that we’re doing social investigation because we want to make the world better. That’s still the hope. But it’s a lot harder than anybody thought.” □
HAPPINESS AT $1,360 A WEEK
From the air,it looks like a posh resort or a millionaire’s hideaway. But visitors to the 85 acres of rolling hills and woodlands in western Massachusetts are not vacationers or the cronies of a wealthy recluse.They are people in pursuit of happiness who think Barry Neil Kaufman’s Option Institute can help them find it.
Can it? “Of course,” says public relations manager Pauline Banducci. “It’s quick, easy and painless.”
The 54-year-old Kaufman, a onetime graphic designer, opened the institute 13 years ago as a place to teach the self-help techniques he and his wife learned from dealing with an autistic son.The centre’s glossy 27-page brochure says clients, guided by 25 teachers, will learn about inner wisdom, self-confidence, personal empowerment, motivation, reconciliation with the past and greater vitality. Yet, like other so-called happy farms across the United
States,the tolls on the road to wellness are hefty: $640 for a three-day weekend, $ 1,360 for a week, and $9,800 for “the full eight weeks.”
But people seem prepared to shell out because happiness has become a hot commodity, and Kaufman, like scores of others in the emotional healing business, has tapped into a bottomless market. His 10 books, including Out-Smarting Your Karma, The Book of Wows and Ughs and his latest, Happiness Is a Choice, have sold more than two million copies in 18 languages.
The books have evidently made an impression; Banducci says the customers, most in their 30s and 40s, come from places as distant as Israel, Australia, Japan, the former Soviet Union, New Zealand and Switzerland.
What about critics who look upon self-help retreats as more cult than college? “If it was a cult,” says Banducci,“people wouldn’t get fired, and here they do.” Administrative director Carol Wertz is equally dismissive of the stiff competition.“We feel that what we do here is unique,” she says.