Ultimate Reality and Meaning 21 (4) December 1998: 301-314. Copyright ã 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.
THE SENSE OF HAPPINESS:
BIOLOGICAL EXPLANATIONS AND ULTIMATE REALITY AND MEANING
ABSTRACT. Genes and circumstances equally contribute to a person's happiness at any moment, but genes cause about eighty percent of the range of happiness they can feel. Genes do this by setting the production and release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and the neurotransmitter serotonin to create the feeling of misery. The scientific story continues. Evolutionary psychologists have mapped the evolutionary means by which these genes arose, and psychologists suggest that happiness largely depends on feeling meaning in life. I explore these matters and relate them to the idea of Ultimate Reality and Meaning as the source of human meaning and happiness.
Those who find salvation become some of the happiest people around, research suggests.
Oh happy days, Oh happy days,
When Jesus washed all our sins away.
Many spiritual traditions would agree with this sentiment. Theological and philosophical attention as well as medical doctrine have focused on happiness and well-being since ancient times. The object of human life is to discover happiness. Ask anyone what they most want from life, and most will answer with a simple `happiness'. Happiness sits at the deepest core of our emotions.
Yet most of us already feel happy and satisfied
with life, whether Jesus or anyone else saves us or not. From surveys of 1.1
million people from all over the globe, psychologists David Myers of Hope
Ninety-three percent of people feel happy (which includes very happy, pretty happy, and moderately happy) as opposed to sad or neutral. Happiness appears not to rely significantly on external factors. Scientists have recently explored how to map genes associated with various behavioral attributes, including a predisposition to violence, `novelty seeking' behavior, and gender orientation (Hamer and Copeland, 1998). Studies have also pointed to a genetic component in our sense of happiness. Genes affect levels of happiness just as Huntington's disease provides a paradigm for late-onset genetic disorders.
One URAM thinker spoke about a comparable concept, beauty. George Santayana maintained in his aesthetic philosophy that the beauty of an object lies not in the object itself but in the beholder. He believed that we have a natural, innate attraction to various types of harmony and symmetry because of the way we are built. He called the human faculty of appreciation for aesthetic objects `the sense of beauty' (Welch, 1997; Santayana, 1955). Here I explore whether we have an analogous `sense of happiness' built into our inmost parts—our genes—in contrast to the idea that our happiness mostly depends on external agencies and our environment.
Studies of happiness can provide an example for exploring other behavioral attributes. I focus on the sense of happiness to depict the connection between genes and behavior, and to seek what genetic science might offer in the search for Ultimate Reality and Meaning. Both genes and circumstances, I suggest, contribute to a person's happiness (at any moment and over the long term) by setting the relative production and release rates of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Biology therefore roots happiness, including the happiness that spiritual traditions promote for this life or for a life to come. This leads to a potential conflict between science and religion. I seek to resolve the clash by reconceiving the idea of Ultimate Reality and Meaning as the source of human happiness.
2. THE BIOLOGICAL STORY
2.1. The Heritability of Happiness. For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range called a `set-point' that our genes largely determine (Adler, 1996). So concludes molecular biologist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute in his review of studies on the role of genes in happiness or misery (Hamer, 1996).
`So many people plan their lives for a distant goal', says David Lykken. `They believe that if they become C.E.O. or win a gold medal, their lives will rise out of humdrum ordinariness. This isn't so. There's a rush of glory and then it fades' (Gose, 1996, p. A9). The sting of tragedy disperses equally as fast. Christopher Reeve, Lykken adds, probably now feels just as happy as he did before his mishap. Job loss and lottery winning influence happiness only over the short term. People may feel an initial euphoria when good fortune visits them, or a sadness when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, but in time they usually revert to how they felt and saw life before fate popped in (Corelli, 1996; Costa, McCrae & Zonderman, 1987). `The "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" clearly influence mood,' says Greg Carey, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Colorado, `but long-term equilibration to life's ups and downs is partly a function of the slings and arrows of genetic fortune' (Holden, 1996, pp. 1593-94).
Identical twins (those with the same genetic
makeup) attain the same level of happiness 44 percent of the time, according to
research by Lykken and Auke
Tellegen of the
The studies Hamer has reviewed assess the happiness of twins over five to ten years, and show the slight impact (2%) of sex, age, race, and marital status. Other studies have shown that a person's level of happiness remains stable over many years (see also `Happiness may truly come from within', 1997). Inherited genes account for the majority of this level, though diseases like depression can override the set-point for well-being over the long term (Goleman, 1996). `How you feel right now is about equally genetic and circumstantial', concludes Hamer, `but how you will feel on average over the next ten years is fully 80% because of your genes' (Hamer, 1996, p. 125).
2.2. Genes and Neurochemistry. The genetic view of the `sense of happiness' has implications for the cause of well-being because a person's genetic code translates into how their neurology behaves. Hamer directs our attention to two of the more than 300 known neurotransmitters, dopamine—the brain's chemical for pleasure—and serotonin, a reduction in which can lead to misery (Freeman, 1997; see also Depue, et al., 1994; and Goleman, 1996, p. B9). Neurotransmitters pass information from the synapse or junction between one nerve cell and another nerve cell or muscle. The nerve cell's bulbous end releases them from storage when an electrical impulse moving along the nerve reaches it. Then they cross the junction to dock at the other nerve cell's receptor, and either prompt or inhibit the impulses along the second cell. The first nerve cell reabsorbs excess neurotransmitters, but not necessarily all of them. Those that remain free-floating, according to biology, help create our happy or miserable states of being.
Genes carry the instructions for the construction
of neurotransmitters, their receptor and reabsorption
portals. They also impart information on such things as their storage and
release rates. Hence, genes can influence the prevalence, scarcity, and
activity of serotonin and dopamine, and, in turn, whatever behaviors and
feelings these neurotransmitters induce. Researchers have found, for instance,
that people who differ in the gene that produces part of the D4 dopamine
receptor—the part that controls the amount of dopamine binding there—differ in
a parallel way in their moods. Psychologist Richard Davidson at the
Some scientists think they have located the part of the brain that registers happiness and where the set-point mechanism works (Goleman, 1996, p. B9; see also Blakeslee, 1996). Other developments in neuroscience may shed further light on the biology of happiness (see, for instance, Blakeslee, 1996).
2.3. Psychological Perspectives. Other sciences beyond behavioral genetics and neuroscience also inform this discussion. Psychology looks at what we do that activates our happiness—stellar sex or delicious dinners (see, for instance Corelli, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Myers, 1992; and Sobel, 1995). Here again findings suggest the importance of biological conditioning in our behavioral makeup. Another science, evolutionary psychology, tells us of the origin of happiness. It suggests the circumstances behind and reasons for natural selection and genetic mutation cooperating in our evolutionary past to produce well-being. What adaptive advantage does it bring us to seek this sense? Robert Wright proposes:
We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones....Of course, we are designed to pursue happiness; and the attainment of Darwinian goals—sex, status, and so on—often brings happiness, at least for a while. Still, the frequent absence of happiness is what keeps us pursuing it, and thus makes us productive (Wright, 1994, p. 298).
These thoughts add to the naturalistic account which behavioral genetics builds for the origin of happiness.
3. THE SPIRITUAL STORY
3.1. Happiness in This Life According to Religions and Philosophies. Many religions and their philosophies focus on happiness (see Darnton, 1995, for a survey). Several examples follow:
3.2. Happiness in the Life to Come. The above examples emphasize the spiritual nature of happiness during our four-score years and ten. Several spiritual traditions and churches emphasize the promise of happiness to come.
4. RESPONSES TO THE SCIENTIFIC STORY
Whether achieved in this life or in an afterlife, spiritual traditions usually ascribe happiness to divine action. How does this square with the results of behavioral genetics? A clash looms between those who adhere to biology and explain things genetically, and those who explain things spiritually—Jesus washes our sins away and God's grace showers us with happiness (Western thought); right action leads to freedom from the Wheel of Samsara and the attainment of Nirvana (Eastern thought). Do the genes of those whom Jesus or right action save predispose them toward great happiness? Perhaps spiritual commitment and experience draw people with these genes, maybe especially when something blocks their happiness. But do genes and neurotransmitters relate to an afterlife? More pointedly, what might those with a spiritually or metaphysically-privileged claim that Ultimate Reality acts in people's lives to bring them happiness say about the scientific position? Does a point of accommodation exist?
4.1. Arguments Against the Biological Explanation Based on Study Design. Many spiritual believers try to ignore or rebut claims for the genetic basis of happiness. Several claims for the genetic roots of various behaviors run into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research. Journalist Sharon Begley refers to four such claims, and the other two she mentions (Hamer's one on happiness and a yet-to-be published one on neuroticism) await their follow-ups (Begley, 1996; see also Goleman, 1996). The more recent scrutiny of one claim—the connection between a condition of the gene D4DR and an adventurous, excitable personality—fails to find support (see also Benjamin, et al., 1996; Bower, 1996a; Cloninger, Adolfsson and Svrakic, 1996; Ebstein, et al., 1996). But she does not mention other claims. Researchers have linked a specific gene to an aspect of thought, for instance: the deletion of the chromosome 7 gene, called LIM-Kinase 1, which disrupts a person's ability to visualize and mentally manipulate parts of objects (Bower, 1996b). On the other hand, the failure of researchers to replicate a study does sound against it. And we should approach with caution those studies for which follow-ups have yet to appear. But it is incorrect that genetic-basis research carries a poor track record and merits skepticism.
Begley also refers to an often-raised suspicion of twin studies, which some of the happiness research draws on. Identical twins frequently dress alike and create a private world for just the two of them. People treat them alike too. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, typically behave no more alike than other siblings. Identicals thus share more influences from their environment, according to biologist Marcus Feldman from Stanford University, which in turn means their happiness levels would show a greater similarity. This criticism of the genetic explanation overlooks a technique employed in twin studies, however, including the one on happiness. Researchers not only look at identical twins reared together, but also at those separated at birth and reared apart. The environments of the subjects in these split-twin studies would differ. The results of such investigations, at least in those concerning well-being, reinforce those conducted with non-split identical twins. Both study designs suggest the influence of genes (see, for instance Lykken, et al., 1992).
Most of the objections Begley reports are trivial. For instance:
Grant Steen, a medical researcher at the Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, reports several skepticisms of split-twin studies. They too are trivial. For instance, Steen feels suspicious of statistics derived from one sample of the population, say from white male twins, being applied to another, say female nontwins or black males (Steen, 1996). Again, a comparison of results from different population groupings deflates this objection (Gose, 1996).
4.2. Subjectivist Arguments. Other critics say that behavioral geneticists like Hamer try to reduce the wholistic human experience of happiness to nothing but the actions of genes, electrical activity, and chemicals. They thereby push anti-reductionism and claim that geneticists and their popularizers ignore the real subjective realm. Walter Freeman, for example, says, `Joy comes with activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enable us to share meaning across the existential barrier that separates each of us from all others. So happiness is not made by a chemical' (Freeman, 1997, p. 70). Writes Mark Epstein, `True happiness is the ability to receive pleasure without grasping and displeasure without condemning, confident in the knowledge that pain and disappointment can be tolerated' (Epstein, 1995, p. 42). `It's worse to wake up in the morning without having a larger purpose in life', says developmental psychologist Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin, `than to wake up unhappy. Just feeling good is a poor measure of the quality of a person's life' (Goleman, 1996, p. B9). Behavioral genetics oversimplifies the reality.
Two comments about these alternative viewpoints commend themselves. First, we can define `happiness' in several ways and disputes over its biological base may revolve around such disagreements. I use a clinical definition which rests in self-reports of subjective well-being. Research by psychologist Joseph de Rivera of Clark University, Massachusetts, and his colleagues suggests a bodily difference in the experiences of elation, gladness, and joy (de Rivera, Possell, Verette & Weiner, 1989). Thus the relationship between these experiences, their biochemical bases, and the measures of well-being used requires further exploration.
Whatever else happiness is, it builds on the biochemical basis outlined in Section 2.2 above. That does not deny that a variety of stressors exist and that some can last a long time—such as the effects of a divorce, discrimination, and social upheaval—and profoundly influence our sense of well-being. These external forces influence us through our bodies, however, not transcendent to them. A person depressed from an excessively low level of serotonin, whether from a direct or indirect cause, cannot feel happy until a biological balance returns. A remedy, whether biological or psychosocial, must ultimately affect the body.
Second, Hamer's and his colleagues' work suggests genes provide only a percentage of input into a behavior. If 80% of happiness is due to genes in the long term, what about the other 20%? And there is still the possibility to move up and down the 80% range in the set-point. `Though genes may determine our average set-point for happiness, they don't specify where we are within our individual range at any particular point in time' (Hamer, 1996, p. 126). Our minds, our free will decisions, could play a role. Geneticist Robert Plomin of Pennsylvania State University considers that variation in the genes for a behavior almost always explains less than half the variation in the way people act out that behavior (Plomin, 1990; see also Friend, 1996; Goleman, 1996; and Gose, 1996). We and our circumstances can affect how we feel here and now. To accept the genetic basis of happiness does not mean drawing a determinist conclusion from the research. All human traits involve environment and individual willfulness, as well as genes.
4.3. Dualistic Thinking. Some scholars set up a dualism: on one side lies the mind with its feelings, and on the other lies the brain with its neurotransmitters. They create a special spiritual or metaphysical status for happiness, which they thereby divorce from the biological stuff of genes and brains. The spirit in the machine. I do not favor a dualism because that continues to divorce science from spiritual thought and closes it from the exciting opportunities behavioral genetics offers (Sharpe, 1984a). Dualism leads to a widening of the fact-value split in our society and hence to its continuing moral mess. Dualism also hinders our asking about the nature of happiness and prevents spiritual traditions from offering ideas to investigate the nature of happiness. Spiritual information has an opportunity to grow and test its insights through such scientific research.
In a compromise maneuver, some spiritual thinkers assert the coexistence of mental and physical explanations for attributes such as happiness but subordinate material efficacy to the influence of higher forces—an "Ultimate Reality-can-change-the genes" response. But if Ultimate Reality works toward our happiness, it need not do it in roundabout or indirect ways. Rule out higher interventions as the way Ultimate Reality operates.
Additional tactics avoid scientific explanations as an ostrich buries its head in the sand. They play a wait-and-see game: we will only approach gene studies seriously when someone else adequately answers all possible criticisms. While later research may modify the current results of the studies, the bulk and significance of the work will probably remain. I suspect more and more evidence will mount to show a genetic basis—along with an environmental complement—for such traits as happiness. In fact, given the rate of progress with the Human Genome Project, before too long research may unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness.
Finally, I hope spiritual and philosophical thinkers resist the temptation to wipe happiness off Ultimate Reality's agenda; of all things, well-being lures as the most common goal toward which we strive.
With the accelerated pace of discovery since the advent of the Human Genome Project, it is just as impossible to ignore the connections between genes and their physical-behavioral correlates as it is to ignore the importance of health and happiness in our lives. We must consider how society and entrepreneurs will use this knowledge rather than distance ourselves from this understanding of the world. What constitutes misuse of the information from genetics? Current genetic engineering of plants and animals to suit human needs presents a challenge only in its infancy.
4.4. A Return to Reason. To take this information about genes and behavior seriously, in particular the genetic and neurotransmitter basis of happiness, suggests Ultimate Reality feels neither happiness nor sadness. Ultimate Reality does not possess genes or neurotransmitters. Similarly, the gene studies suggest we should not hope for happiness in an afterlife. The contemporary philosopher George Santayana felt that common sense should play a part in how we reason about abstract ideas. For example, he considered the Platonic forms—the `realm of essence'—as having a real place in the shaping of the material world, but asserted that they are not separate from actual existence and the tangible objects occupying it (Grossman, 1993). Along the same lines, modern genetic research shows that happiness is a mental state brought about by neurotransmitters and that these things disintegrate with our bodies. A nonphysical form of happiness runs into the same sorts of difficulties as a Platonic form or a nonphysical digestive tract.
It makes little sense to think that Ultimate Reality created happiness in humans to match a particular divine characteristic, because this requires supernatural intervention in human evolution. Happiness is an adaptive feature of human beings.
Metaphorical reinterpretations of happiness lose touch with reality as well-being depends so much on biology. We need to revisit the human images we project onto or use for Ultimate Reality and reconstruct our idea of Ultimate Reality.
Yet we empty meaning out of life if we go to the extreme and surrender all hope of images, opting to say nothing about Ultimate Reality or an afterlife. We need to follow a constructive approach, not one that gives up or holds tightly to the past.
5. A RECONSTRUCTION
Ultimate Reality may `want' us to feel happy, but we should cease thinking of well-being as a moral quality which reaches us supernaturally. What does that leave for the spiritual thinker to ruminate about over Ultimate Reality and happiness? I suggest we look at the nature of Ultimate Reality, and of Ultimate Reality's relationship with the universe and with us as part of it.
5.1. Enfolding Reality. One approach to this task starts by thinking of Ultimate Reality as the totality of all that exists, the universe-as-a-whole (see Sharpe, n.d.). This whole resembles other wholes we experience.
The Democratic Party possesses a spirit, a system of belief, and a life which includes but transcends the spirit of the President and his system of beliefs and his life, and those of all other of its members. The President is a member of the Democratic Party, and, in a similar way, happiness is a property of Ultimate Reality: as we are part of the universe-as-a-whole, of Ultimate Reality, our happiness is also a property of Ultimate Reality—but happiness thought of differently from ours. The party influences the President and the President the party. Our happiness influences Ultimate Reality and Ultimate Reality influences our happiness.
The party enfolds the political attitudes of the Chief Executive and creates something more of them, something that reflects the history of the party, its stated ideals, and the attitudes of everyone in it. It transcends the President. Ultimate Reality's `happiness' may similarly include but go beyond our experience of happiness. It relates to ours but exceeds ours in a wholistic way that embraces and transcends what we experience, as any whole transcends its parts.
5.2. Social Implications. This discussion provokes more than the question of the happiness of Ultimate Reality. It can involve the particulars of a spiritual tradition. Suppose we believe in the example and teachings of Jesus Christ and the witness of the Hebraic tradition, or the theory of divine emanation and return of the Kabbalistic Judaic tradition, or in the oscillation of Purusha and Prakriti, the Unmoved Mover and nature, in Vedic philosophy. Then we think Ultimate Reality produced the universe and us—the method that science describes, including that of behavioral genetics—and that Ultimate Reality wants us to strive to maximize the happiness of other people. This interrelationship will mean trying to remove the barriers to justice and equality that some people experience. Such conditions restrict a person's level of opportunity across the board and have a chronic effect on the sense of well-being. It may even mean trying to change the behaviors of people whose source of happiness (excessive TV or rich food, for instance) leads to less happiness and can destroy their lives and those of many around them. We could turn our attention to the greater destroyers such as addiction to tobacco, hard drugs, or alcohol. What model of reality we treasure influences the social policies we value.
Many people and peoples project human qualities onto Ultimate Reality. While scholars may sometimes consider these projections analogies, most other believers do not, and frequently scholars forget this as well. The genetic and biochemical basis for happiness (and other qualities) suggests the inappropriateness of such explanations: just as we usually consider it inappropriate to speak of the fingers of a rock, so it seems inappropriate to speak of the happiness of Ultimate Reality and of an afterlife given their nonbiological nature. If we do consider it appropriate to apply the term `happiness' in these ways, we need to establish a rationale for doing so and to mark out the boundaries of such uses.
A recent study on judging risk shows that British people trust the word of scientists 59 percent of the time and religious organizations only 22 percent (Marris and Langford, 1996). Spiritual thinkers need to take seriously and decline to shelve or rebuff such claims as the genetic basis of subjective traits like happiness. Or they face further dismissal. While the details of the science may change, the challenge to spiritual thought and ethics will remain. The demand digs deeply into spiritual thought because it requires us to reconstruct our understanding of Ultimate Reality and Ultimate Reality's relationship with the universe.
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Published in Ultimate Reality and Meaning 21 (4) December 1998: 301-314. Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.