Published in the Catholic Herald 10 July 1998, p. 5. Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.



Kevin Sharpe and Rebecca Bryant

Every day we hear stories on TV and read articles in the newspaper about genes, cloning and genetic engineering. With increasing frequency, we are told that another scientist has located the specific gene underlying a particular disease. Whilst we might not object to defective genes causing disease, when it comes to our normal personalities, we become defensive.

Yet the inner sanctum of the self is exactly where the science of behavioural genetics – which explains human behaviour in terms of heredity – penetrates most deeply. For every one of us, our happiness levels fluctuate within a small range called a “set-point”, which our genes largely determine, according to many behavioural scientists. Although we may experience intense mood swings, as well as everyday ups and downs, still we return very quickly to our pre-determined level of happiness. “So many people plan their lives for a distant goal”, explains University of Minnesota psychologist 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.” And commonplace experience tells us that the psychologists are right –we’ve all felt  ecstatic on achieving some coveted goal, only to find ourselves, a few hours later, griping and moaning in our usual manner.

Support for the genetic set point comes from studies conducted with fraternal and identical twins by Lykken and his colleague Auke Tellegen. They show that identical twins share happiness levels more closely than do fraternal twins. Since identical twins share 100% of their genes in common and fraternals share only 50%, happiness must, at least partially, be determined by genes. And statistical analysis even allows researchers to moot an exact figure: “How you will feel on average over the next ten years is fully 80% because of your genes”, claims molecular biologist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute in America.

How does this make us feel about happiness? Traditionally, happiness was the domain of philosophers and theologians. Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine all believed that intelligent reflection resulted in satisfaction and joy. More recently, Christian orthodoxy teaches that living virtuously in this life leads to ultimate happiness in the life to come. Other spiritual traditions treat of happiness too. Taoists believe that happiness consists in detachment from worldly pursuits. Only nirvana – the escape from eternal rebirth – ensures ultimate peace, according to Buddhist thought. Islam speaks of al-janna (the garden), where the faithful experience the highest of spiritual and sensual happiness.

And, in our heart of hearts, we want to retain that spiritual, sacred notion of happiness. We feel there must be more to our emotions than heredity, genes and electrical brain impulses. So how can we square the scientific and spiritual stories?

Remember that the exact figure mooted by Hamer was 80%. If our happiness levels are only 80% determined by our genes, what about the other 20%? We also move up and down within our genetically determined set-points. Both these gaps leave room for the action of our minds, our free will and our environments. Spiritual approaches to happiness need not lose their grip. To move further forward, we must answer many questions. How can genes relate to happiness in the afterlife? Does God save only those with elevated set-points for happiness? These may be difficult questions, but within them lies the reconciliation of cutting edge science and age-old spirituality.

Catholic Herald 10 July 1998, p. 5. Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.