Where Does Happiness (and Everything Else) Come From? Lessons from Literature

"How do we come to be?" Middlesex inquired of me.

Posted Jan 10, 2010

From a young age, I've been drawn to "psychological" authors - those writers who understand what motivates us, writers who grasp the complexity of our emotions and the mysteries of our behavior. From Mark Twain to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from Jane Austen to Milan Kundera, I have pored over and savored their wonderful books - books that transported me to a different century, across the globe, and inside a person's heart, and allowed a fresh understanding of human nature.

So it's not surprising that I grew up to become a professor of psychology. When I'm not reading fiction, I now do research on how people can be happier. Some researchers get their ideas from reading academic articles, others by observing themselves or by reading the newspaper. I do this too, but my favorite source of inspiration is novels, whose richness never fails to provide faithful illustrations of human behavior. So, when I discovered Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, a big, weighty, meaty book that follows the journey of a gene through several generations of a Greek-American clan, I was transfixed. "How does a person come to be?" the novel inquired of me. How do our twenty thousand some genes intersect with one another and combine with our experiences to create the person that we are? As a happiness researcher, I am continually confronted and stumped by the question of whether our happiness lies in our genes versus our environment.

This is the book's billion dollar question, and while Eugenides doesn't have the answer, he offers clarity worthy of a scientist, which he accomplishes through story, not through experiment. Cal-slash-Calliope, the hermaphroditic narrator of Middlesex, apparently has the "brain of a boy" but was raised as a girl for 14 years. Which gender - that of Cal or Calliope - is the true, authentic gender? What this book achieves in a lovely way is to recognize the question as an unanswerable one. The fact is that no traits - whether we're talking about happiness or gender or musical ability - are purely the result of nature. And no traits are solely the products of environment. But even concluding that they're both is something of a cop-out. Trying to unravel those strands of Cal's true gender due to genetics from those due to upbringing is like trying to decide whether the beauty of Middlesex originates from the author's imagination or from his pen. It's neither and it's both.

Of course, scientists like to measure and disentangle things. By comparing identical and fraternal twins, they have discovered that 50% of the differences in people's happiness levels are due to their genes, which leaves a large percentage of happiness under our power to choose and to control.

Why do I recommend this book? Because it'll make you ache for the pain of adolescence and the tragedy of bigotry. Because it'll induce you to feel mixed, complicated emotions like bittersweet, nostalgic, ambivalent, and poignant, as oppose to easy, rudimentary ones like happy and sad. Because, like me, you'll stay up late too many nights to relish chapter after chapter about family and community, love and war, culture and mythology and, of course, identity. Because after I finished reading it, I wished I could take a drug to erase my memory, so that I could immediately start again on the very first page. I've urged Middlesex onto two dozen people - folks of all stripes - the banker sitting next to me on the airplane, my student, my running buddy, my deliveryman. I've told them all the same - that Middlesex is going to make them happy.

If only Cal-slash-Calliope had an identical twin! Which gender would he/she choose to be? I'm hanging around for the sequel.