Mean Genes


Boston Globe, October 11, 2000 By Gareth Cook


Happy hunting. Researchers delight in determining what brings us joy

After psychologist David Lykken gets done shoveling the snow from the walk leading up to his Minneapolis home, the satisfaction he feels is worth "one  Hap."

He gets the same amount when he draws from the oven a "perfect lemon meringue pie." Finishing a book chapter is worth "more like four Haps."

"It's a fun notion to explain howl think [happiness] really works," said Lykken, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota. and one of the foremost specialists in the new field of measuring, dissecting, and, ultimately, understanding what makes people happy.

Lykken studied 300 pairs of twins and showed that people's overall happiness is at least 50 percent, and perhaps as much as 90 percent, determined by their genes. The finding, combined with hundreds of studies in recent years, has also proved that each person has his own "happiness set point," a level of joy returned to despite winning the lottery or losing the use of limbs.

“The research shows that you can't change the set point much," said Lykken. "You want to focus on the little things that allow you to bounce around above the happiness level."

Lykken's study, concluded in 1998, is one of a gathering body of findings, in specialties ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary biology, that are overturning popular ideas about how happiness functions. In the short term, happiness is proving remarkably volatile, spiking with the smell of pie, or tumbling after a paper cut. But, over the long term, psychologists say the things that many assume would make life better — such as money, beauty, or social prominence — don't seem to matter.

And now, buoyed by the rapid progress, scientists are convinced the question of how to build a happier society, once the domain of philosophers, could soon fall within their grasp.

"In the affluent nations, where there is wealth and freedom, the most pressing problems of our time have been solved. So now there is the question: How do we get happier?," said Ruut Veenhoven, editor of an international Journal of Happiness Studies, which began publishing earlier this year.

Veenhoven, who is an associate professor of sociology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said that when he first started seriously investigating human contentedness more than two decades ago, he was met with hostility from scientists who considered the topic flaky. Now, he said, he has posted a "World Database of Happiness" on the Web, a list of 3,277 scientific papers from around the world.

"The study of happiness is really exploding," said Nancy Etcoff, a neurobiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is working on a layman's book about the research. Over the last decade, she said, neuroscientists have turned to studying the brain mechanics of emotions, and there is new enthusiasm for exploring the positive emotions, which are more diffuse and considered harder to study.

Already, she said, researchers have found that happiness and unhappiness function in separate circuits of the brain. Peering at a computer screen, she said, scientists can watch as positive emotions tend to activate the left half of the brain, while negative emotions tend to light up the right side.

This implies, she and other scientists said, that antidepressants such as Prozac could make a patient less unhappy, meaning fewer low moments, but not necessarily more happy. Psychologists have seized on this insight, asking people to rate separately, using a seven-point scale, the frequency in their life of happy and unhappy moments. The results are startling for anyone who has ever said "if only..."

A 1998 study, for example, found that people are pleased just after a raise, but that there is no relation between salary and ultimate happiness. A 1995 paper reported that physical attractiveness has at most a very marginal effect.

Other researchers have shown that whatever the rush of graduation day, education doesn't make for a happier life; likewise, advances in "social standing" also have no effect.

Taking an evolutionary perspective, Lykken said it is logical that happiness is so fleeting. Feeling good, he said, is a reward system for accomplishments that make a creature more likely to survive. But if happiness didn't fade away, an effect theorists have dubbed the "hedonic treadmill," the result would be a blissed-out complacency.

"Nature uses pain and pleasure as the stick to guide us," Lykken said.But the system rewards us only if we exceed expectations, said Jay Phelan, who teaches biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Instead of giving his wife big presents for her birthday, he gives her many small presents throughout the year from a "gift closet," said Phelan, co-author of "Mean Genes," a self-help book based on evolution.

Indeed, joy derives from surprise and challenges in our work and our relationships, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. He has probed happiness by equipping 850 adolescents nationwide with watches that beep when they are to record how happy they are.

The least happy teens, he discovered, seem to be those from the upper-middle class, who for the most part live comfortably in the suburbs and yet "develop an early cynicism about life."

In 1997, Veenhoven constructed a kind of world atlas of happiness by multiplying national life expectancy by national happiness averages to yield a number of expected "happy years" for 48 countries around the world.

Based on 1990 data, the list was topped by Iceland, with 62.1 happy years, followed in tenth place by the United States at 57.8 years. Russia came in 45th with 34.5 years, below India.

"The greatest good for the greatest number has finally become measurable and more objective," said Robert E. Lane, professor emeritus of political science at Yale University and author of ‘The Loss of Happiness in the Market Democracies." The book says happiness studies could help affluent nations restructure their political systems.

Veenhoven said his research showed that once a nation has a certain amount of wealth, enough that people don't die of starvation, further increases don't make citizens happier. Similarly, Veenhoven said affluent countries that expanded welfare didn't make their citizens any happier.

But many cautioned that happiness has limits as a political concept, because not everyone agrees on its importance.

Nations across Asia regularly score lower on measures of subjective well being. The explanation for this disparity probably lies with the fact that Eastern cultures tend to be more "collectivist," emphasizing families and groups over individual needs, according to Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Diener recalled a trip in which his son asked a woman in the Indian state of Kerala whether she was happy. She responded: "I don't know, I'll have to ask my husband."