Katie Gilbert

Katie Gilbert

Insight Is 20/20

Happiness, Dissected

Can we learn more about happiness from genes or lives?

Posted Jul 28, 2009

What would it mean to be able to genetically engineer happiness? Could it be that with the discovery of the right genetic hot spots, a rosy outlook would be as easily attainable as vitamin-enriched corn?

Yoram Barak, a researcher with Tel Aviv University in Israel, hopes so. He's out to map the genes implicated in controlling how happy we are (or aren't), anticipating that one day scientists will be able to use his findings to "‘manipulate' the systems identified for increasing happiness," as he explained in an email to me.

The process is appealing for its obviousness, for what seems like the near-inevitably that the mystery is bound to be solved by the right genetic cartographer. And such an easy application: Find the happiness switch (or the eight hundred). Turn on. Enjoy.

But is the simplicity elegant or just conveniently reductive? There are so many questions that the genetic approach doesn't seem equipped to address, like, who gets to decide which brand of happiness we're after in the first place? (Potent and staccato or diluted and sustained? Reality-enhancing or distorting? Self-aggrandizing or humbling?) How do we account for the way happiness matures and transforms and takes on new definitions over a lifetime?

With those nuances in mind, Harvard researchers collected 268 students of the university (all men) in the late 1930s for a long-term study (which is the subject of an article called "What Makes Us Happy?" in the June issue of The Atlantic) with one goal in mind: Use every available physical, psychological and social work-related methodology of the day to trace the progression of participants' success or demise and determine the universal ingredients for happiness, once and for all.

The participants were initially selected based on the premise that they were the healthiest and most well adjusted among their collegiate peers. But as the years charged ahead, the men diverged in ways the original researchers never could have guessed. There were drinkers and depressives, CEOs and a U.S. president, conductors and novelists; they ranged from wildly successful by any conventional measure to derelict. It would seem that with such a wide spread of initiative and backgrounds, any guardian of the vast study could at least arrive at a hunch of how to secure admission to the good life.

Enter George Vaillant, who has been tending to these breathing dossiers for over forty years. His perspective on happiness has been shaped by the study's very nature: With over 72 years of data - file after file of entire lives to contend with - events that may loom large on a participant's horizon at a given moment take on pointillistic proportions, emphasizing the difficulty in labeling any one life as categorically happy or clearly not. Marriages come and go, and so do divorces. Diseases, loved ones, jobs and possessions sweep through the participants' lives and the files' notes and then are gone.

These men surely would have described themselves as "happy" at various times and for a multitude of reasons through the years - and at other times as hopelessly undeserving of such a shimmering adjective. Once we start thinking of our happiness as something distending through time-through tribulations and variations-we ask ourselves: Which moments count as ultimately representative? Would a snapshot encapsulating my entire life convey happiness or sadness, and couldn't I make just as compelling a case for either?

This is where Barak's study fails to capture the ambiguities and wideness of the net cast by such whole-life-encompassing reflection. If there is a switch that controls happiness, or a thousand of them, then they are flung up and down a million times in a hundred years. (Would we really want it any different?) Ultimately, the switches themselves are only small and fractured snippets of an overwhelming landscape, like as many synchronized swimmers bobbing above and below the water in a varied and dizzying routine.

Vaillant agrees. "Trying to find a gene for ‘the happiness setpoint' will undoubtedly be as complex as finding one gene for depression or alcoholism," he wrote me in an email.

So what can we learn from nearly three-quarters of a century spent poking and prodding at hundreds of messy, triumphant, tragic and mundane lives? Haven't we arrived at any take-home answer? Yes, insists Vaillant, and as expected, it's bewilderingly complex in its simplicity: "Happiness equals love--full stop."