Submitted for publication. Presented to the Research Seminar, Ian Ramsey Centre, Faculty of Theology,
Graduate College, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
Oxford Institute for Science and Spirit, Oxford, UK
Founder, Science & Spirit Magazine
Oxford University Press, Oxford,
and circumstances contribute equally to human happiness in the short term, but
genes and neurotransmitters cause
KEYWORDS. The Divine, Genetics, happiness, neuroscience, science/religion, theology.
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.
Yet most of us feel happy and satisfied with life, whether
Jesus saves us or not. From surveys of
What does happiness depend on?
For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range that our genes largely determine. So concludes Dean Hamer in his review of studies on the role of genes in happiness or misery.
Identical twins (those with the same genetic makeup) attain
the same level of happiness
A recent report by psychologists Christopher Lewis and Stephen Joseph suggests that the Depression-Happiness Scale (which psychologists use to calculate happiness) measures happiness as a trait rather than a state, with subjectsí scores on the scale remaining relatively stable over a two-year period. Other studies show that a personís level of happiness remains stable over many years. Inherited genes account for the majority of this level.
ĎHow you feel right now is about equally genetic and
circumstantial,í says Hamer. ĎBut how you will feel on average over the next
ten years is fully
A clash looms between those who adhere to biology and explain things genetically, and those who explain things spiritually Ė Jesus washes our sins away and Godís grace showers us with happiness.
Biology places the responsibility for our states of
happiness or misery on our genes. It helps explain more about well-being than
this, too. Hamer directs our attention to two of the more than
Genes carry the instructions for the construction of neurotransmitters, their receptor and re-absorption 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.
Further evidence for a physical/biochemical basis of
happiness comes from neuroanatomy.
Religions and their philosophies also discuss happiness. For instance:
∑ Popular spiritual leader Robert Schuller writes about The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Transform Your Life. Along with charismatic and Pentecostal tendencies in contemporary western religion, such books and movements assume that religion intends for happiness.
∑ Believers might say their happiness arises from God who wants them to feel this way. Reformation Protestants focussed on justification by grace through faith. They believed that through this grace we could share what God offers, a positive loving action. The Bible presents a picture, to their eyes, of a gracious and loving deity who desires everyoneís happiness.
Highly religious people declare themselves very happy at
twice the rate of those with the lowest spiritual commitment, according to a
Other religious traditions and churches emphasize more the promise of happiness to come.
∑ In Christian orthodoxy, happiness lies elsewhere, somewhere of original bliss and innocence (the Garden of Eden) or of future bliss (Heaven, our eternal and happy home where we will see God face-to-face or the Promised Land where we will find happiness and complete satisfaction). A friend with a staunch Roman Catholic upbringing talks of her constant sinning because she fails to say grace before every meal and pray every night and attend church as often as possible. She must overcome this tendency through acts of penance to achieve happiness in the afterlife.
∑ Buddhist and Hindu scriptures alike advocate withdrawal from the world of pleasure. Spiritually mature people abandon desires, lose their appetite for joys, and withdraw from their senses. The Buddha preached life as suffering. If we accept the intrinsic sorrow of life and observe his teachings, we will find happiness.
Whether achieved in this life or in an afterlife, religions usually ascribe happiness to divine action. Do sciences like behavioral genetics mean the genes of those whom Jesus saves predispose them toward greater happiness? Perhaps spiritual commitment and experience draw people with these genes, maybe especially when something blocks their happiness. Further, how do genes and neurotransmitters relate to an afterlife? We might more pointedly ask what these sciences could say about the truth claims of religious experience and involvement, including the activity of God in peopleís lives. Divine deeds and biological biases seem incompatible as explanations.
Religious believers may well try, then, to ignore or rebut claims for the genetic basis of happiness. Several paths open to them. Divine grace and will or human will, they might claim, figure more in happiness than does biology. They set up a dualism: on one side lies the mind with its feelings and on the other lies the brain with its neurotransmitters. The spirit in the machine. Perhaps they might exact a special spiritual status for happiness, which they thereby divorce from the biological stuff of genes and brains.
Religious believers might also try to undermine the genetic
research. Several claims for the genetic basis of various behaviors run into
trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research.
Sharon Begley refers to four such claims, and the other two she mentions
(Hamerís one on happiness and a yet-to-be published one on neuroticism) await
their follow-ups. The reader might conclude from her reporting that genetic-basis
research carries a poor track record and merits skepticism. Yet Begley fails to
mention other gene-behavior studies, most of which have not met their
Begley also refers to an often-raised suspicion of twin studies. 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 Marcus Feldman, which in turn means their happiness levels would show a greater similarity. But this criticism overlooks a technique employed in twin studies, 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. But the results of such investigations, at least in those concerning well-being, reinforce those conducted with non-split identical twins.
Lawrence Wright throws further doubt on twin studies in his
recent book, Twins: Genes, Environment,
and the Mystery of Human Identity, in which he recounts the puzzling case
of a pair of identical twins: one healthy, the other with a fatal version of
the genetic disorder muscular dystrophy. John Burn, the doctor examining the
case, concluded, Ďeven though they [the twins] share the same genes, a genetic
trait doesnít have to be sharedí (Wright
Scientists used to assume that identical twins were born in
the same gestational sac and non-identicals in different sacs. Wright points
out that DNA testing has proved this reasoning faulty Ė roughly one third of
identical twins are born from separate placentas and occasionally placentas
belonging to fraternals merge. He concludes: ĎMany same-sex twins who believe
that they are fraternal may actually be identical, and vice versaí (Wright
Other critics say that behavioral geneticists like Hamer try
to reduce the holistic human experience of happiness to nothing but the actions
of genes and electrical activity and chemicals. The critics thereby push
anti-reductionism and claim that geneticists and their popularizers ignore the
real subjective realm. Behavioral genetics oversimplifies the reality. Yet
Hamerís and his colleaguesí work suggests genes provide only a percentage of
input into a behavior. ĎThough genes may determine our average [level] of
happiness, they donít specify where we are within our individual range at any
particular point in timeí (Hamer
Neither ought spiritual thinkers play a wait-and-see game: we will only approach these studies seriously when someone else adequately answers all possible criticisms. While later research may modify the results of the gene studies, the bulk and tone of the work will probably remain. We suspect more and more evidence will mount to show a genetic basis (along with an environmental basis) for such traits as happiness. Given the rate of progress with the human genome project, before too long research may unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness. It will catch spiritual thinkers unthinking.
The problem is more serious than this sounds, an academic exercise. The human genome project will (and does) connect behaviors such as happiness, as well as diseases and physical traits, with particular clusters of genes. How will society and entrepreneurs use this knowledge? What constitutes misuse of this information? Current genetic engineering of plants and animals presents a challenge only in its infancy.
Apart from an occasional glance through its ethics spectacles, religion ignores this work. Theologians, religionists, ethicists, and philosophers could constructively engage the scientific findings and their implications for spiritual beliefs. They should. When the conclusions of the human genome project pour upon us with their ethical, philosophical, and spiritual implications, theologians should find themselves well prepared and knee-deep in the discussion.
This seldom happens. Spiritual thinkers continue to deny the potential usefulness of behavioral genetics with more science bashing, continued ignoring of science, and segregation of subjective qualities like happiness from the physical world of genes. Such dualism allows for the further irrelevance of religion for daily life.
We either enjoy happiness or we do not. We can control some
of the circumstantial factors of our current state of happiness, but
God may want us to feel happy, but we should cease thinking of well-being as a moral quality we should aspire to. What does that leave for the theologian to ruminate about over God and happiness? Perhaps we could look at the nature of God and Godís relationship with the universe and with humans as part of creation. If we take all this stuff about genes and behavior seriously, we need to revisit the human images we project onto God. The genetic and neurotransmitter basis of happiness suggests God feels neither happiness nor sadness. This means a reconstruction of our idea of God.
Similarly, the gene studies indicate we cannot hope for happiness in an afterlife; happiness is a mental state brought about by neurotransmitters and these things disintegrate with our bodies. A nonphysical form of happiness generates as little sense as a nonphysical digestive tract. Metaphorical reinterpretations of happiness lose touch with reality as well-being depends so much on biology.
But then we empty meaning out of life if we give up all hope of images and opt for the extreme of saying nothing about God or the afterlife. We need to think more deeply about the nature of God and the afterlife.
One approach to this need for theological reconstruction starts by thinking of God as the totality of all that exists, the universe-as-a-whole. This whole resembles other wholes we experience. The Republican Party possesses a spirit, a system of belief, and a life which includes but transcends the spirit of President Bush and his system of beliefs and his life, and those of all other of its members. How does happiness then relate to God as the universe-as-a-whole?
Bush is a member of the Republican Party, and, in a similar way, happiness is a property of God. As we are part of the universe-as-a-whole, of God, our happiness is also a property of God Ė but happiness thought of differently from ours. The party influences the President and the President the party. Our happiness influences God and God influences our happiness. The party enfolds the political attitudes of Bush 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 Bush. Similarly, Godís Ďhappinessí includes but goes beyond our experience of happiness. It relates to ours but exceeds ours in a holistic way that embraces and transcends what we experience as any whole transcends its parts.
The task then becomes one of describing transcended happiness. To do this, look at the wholes we experience. In particular, look at the way the properties of the parts of a whole become, when it transcends them, properties of it. Do this for various wholes. Then extend this knowledge to create models for the way the universe-as-a-whole, God, relates to its parts. Lastly, evaluate the various models for the God-universe relationship that the different types of whole-parts associations produce.
This will help us rebuild theology to make more sense of happiness and other human characteristics as attributes of God. It will also help us reconceive afterlife since it too involves the wholeness inherent in the universe-as-a-whole.
The genes-happiness-God debate provokes more than the nature-of-God question and solution. Suppose we believe in the example and teachings of Jesus Christ and the witness of the Hebraic tradition. Then we think God produced the universe and us (the method for which we describe with science, including that of behavioral genetics) and that God wants us to strive to maximize the happiness of other people. This will mean trying to remove the barriers to justice and equality that some people experience. Such conditions depress a personís level of happiness. 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.
We need to take seriously and decline to shelve or rebuff such claims as the genetic basis of subjective traits like happiness. While the details of the science may change, the challenge to theology and ethics will remain. The demand digs deeply into theological thought. We may need to reconstruct our understanding of God and Godís relationship with the universe.
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