C:\NB4\WORK\SOCIOBIO\SR21.DOC                                                        21 April 1998
To Appear in Implicit Religion 2 (1) May 1999. Copyright ã 1999 by Kevin Sharpe.

 

IMPLICIT RELIGION AND INTER FAITH DIALOGUE:

A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE

 

Kevin Sharpe and Rebecca Bryant

 

1.   Introduction

Many implicit religions in the modern west contain, we claim, these three concepts:

·    The scientific or empirical method as a way to approach truth.

·    God or spirituality as somehow central to life.

·    Happiness as an important goal of life.

This paper explores the relationship between the first two (science and religion) through the third, happiness. We suggest this as a way to start exploring implicit religion.

The pursuit of happiness is an underlying goal in many different religious traditions and faiths. Science also concerns itself with the nature of happiness—much recent work in behavioral genetics and neuroscience points towards a substantial genetic underpinning of this concept.

A clash therefore looms between religious and scientific conceptions of the nature of happiness. We examine ways to resolve this clash within the bounds of implicit religion, proposing that science and religion should jointly adopt an empirical framework within which to evaluate both physical and spiritual claims about the nature of happiness. We thereby advocate a more holistic and integrated approach to the understanding of human happiness.

 

2. What is implicit religion?

What form does religious experience typically take in contemporary culture, asks Edward Bailey in his recent book, Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society. Ordinary life in contemporary society is implicitly religious, he answers.

              Bailey defines implicit religion in three complementary ways. Implicit religion equates with commitment – it concentrates on human attitude. Implict religion integrates different types of meaning – it overrides the temptation to divide “the natural from the social environment; the individual from society; the chosen from the cultural; the conscious from the unconscious; the subjective from the objective; the rational from the emotional; the ethical from the ontological; the transcendent from the immanent; the divine from the human; the supernatural from the natural,” and emphasises that “any body may have more than one focus of commitment” (Bailey, 1997, p.8). Implicit religion combines “intensive concerns with extensive effects” (Bailey, 1997, p.9) – it involves longlasting influential passions.

              The implicit religion of contemporary society is a committment to the human, Bailey concludes. This system of religion revolves around the notion of the sacredness of the Self and incorporates the sacredness of the personal Self, the sacredness of other Selves, and the sacredness of relationships with other Selves. We combine religion and the secular in this way and so carve a middle path between the sacred and the profane, which enables us to extend our understanding further. A two-pronged approach proves necessary since “not only does the secular appear to possess a secondary quality: religion itself appears incomplete, when it is without relevance to that which is not religious” (Bailey, 1997, p.6).

 

3.  Religious conceptions of happiness

 

We all desire to be happy and devote considerable time to pleasure seeking. How to secure a job that will satisfy and fulfil us? How to find a partner with whom we can happily share the rest of our lives? How to ensure that we spend our leisure time pleasurably and constructively? Human beings display a strong commitment to the pursuit of their own (and others’) happiness.

And most of us do feel happy and satisfied with life. From surveys of 1.1 million people from all over the globe, psychologists David Myers of Hope College, Michigan, and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, conclude that most people describe themselves as “pretty happy” (Myers & Diener, 1996; see also Corelli, 1996; Doskoch, 1995; and “Tracking global happiness”, 1996). Ninety-three percent feel happy (which includes very happy, pretty happy, and moderately happy) as opposed to sad or neutral.

The pursuit of happiness is a religious activity. In fact, many religions and their philosophies focus on happiness (see Darnton, 1995, for a survey) and advise that it is virtuous to seek out spiritual happiness in everyday life:

·    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 everyone's happiness. Happiness arises from God.

·    Spiritual leader Robert Schuller writes about The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Transform Your Life (Schuller, 1985). Along with charismatic and Pentecostal tendencies in the spiritual traditions of the contemporary west, such books and movements assume that religion intends for happiness. Happiness is nearness to God.

·    Happiness comes to the person who lives a life of intellectual contemplation. So thought philosophers in ancient Greece. Epicurian and Stoic philosophers similarly proposed “happy wisdom”, as Myers and Diener word it. Aristotle thought of happiness as the highest good. Happiness equates with virtue, he believed. “There's no fool who is happy, and no wise man who is not”, the Roman philosopher Cicero reiterated (Myers and Diener, 1995, p. 10; see also Irwin, 1994).

·    Augustine accepted the basic tenet of the ancients' ethical theory: we should aim our behavior toward the achievement of well-being or happiness, the only universal desire. Aquinas concurred with Aristotle and Augustine: happiness is the basic human pursuit. He also agreed that happiness had to do with intelligent reflection. The highest form of happiness derives from the highest use of the intellect: thinking about spiritual matters and in particular about God (McDannell and Lang, 1988).

·    Theologians and artists of the Renaissance believed in happiness and pleasure as the aims for life, particularly for the Christian life. Virtue formed only one route to happiness. Happiness supersedes virtue (McDannell and Lang, 1988, p. 140).

And religions succeed at making people happy. Highly religious people declare themselves very happy at twice the rate of those with the lowest spiritual commitment, according to a Gallup survey (Myers and Diener, 1996). A study of 166,600 people in fourteen countries demonstrates that happiness and satisfaction with life increase with frequency of attendance at worship services.

Several spiritual traditions and churches also emphasise the promise of happiness to come in the afterlife:

·    In Christian orthodoxy, happiness lies elsewhere, a place of original bliss and innocence (the Garden of Eden) or of future joy (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). “Heaven is destination and reward”, writes David van Biema, “succour and relief from earthly trials” (van Biema, 1997, p. 72). Adds Jeffrey Russell from the University of California at Santa Barbara, “[Heaven] is an endless dynamic of joy” (van Biema, 1997, p. 77).

·    Islam views the paradise of afterlife in heaven as a garden of pleasure where the righteous enjoy the highest of spiritual and sensual happiness. Happiness embraces divine pleasure and physical enjoyment.

·    According to many modern philosophers, religious people prize another world and therefore despise this world and feel uncertain in their attitudes toward the world around them. Religion thus dries up and attacks any happiness this world can provide, while promising happiness in a life hereafter—which some humanists call “pie in the sky” or an “opiate of the people”.

·    Plato occupied a compromise position in the battle between happiness in this life and the life to come. In Plato's Republic, Socrates described the man [sic.] at peace with himself as being in perfect balance between the three elements desire, passion, and reason – a condition attainable in this life. However, the Phaedo indicates that the true philosopher attains utmost joy only when he retracts from the senses and carnal distractions. The philosopher genuinely experiences his final goal, purity of wisdom, only upon fully quitting the body (Kaplan, 1951, pp. 80-83, 301).

·    Hinduism also advocates withdrawal from the world of pleasure. Hindu scriptures suggest spiritually mature people abandon desires, lose their appetite for joys, and withdraw from their senses (Wright, 1994, p. 269). The Bhagavad Gita depicts the ideal person as one of discipline, one who acts without worrying about the results of the action, unaffected by praise or rebuke. Actions in prior lives influence the situation of the next life and decide the degree of happiness or unhappiness between lives in the hereafter.

·    The Buddha preached life as suffering. If we accept the intrinsic sorrow of life and observe his teachings—for instance, if we practice the virtues of sympathy, compassion, joy, and equanimity—we will experience happiness.

We need to note two fundamental issues from the above examples. First, diverse spiritual traditions, both eastern and western, laud the pursuit of happiness: it is an inter-faith concept. It probably also constitutes a central feature of many implicit religions. It might even qualify as a form of implicit religion itself. Second, these religious definitions of happiness concentrate on intellectual or spiritual satisfaction, they usually ascribe happiness to divine action, and they often speak of happiness to come in the afterlife as well as happiness in the here and now.

 

4. Scientific conceptions of happiness

 

Science also says something about 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 or 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 (Myers, in Grantham, 1996; see also 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, p. 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 University of Minnesota (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996). Fraternal twins, in comparison, those who share genes as do ordinary siblings, reach the same level only eight percent of the time. Hamer leads us through several calculations and says: “These data show that the broad heritability of well-being is 40 to 50 (Hamer, 1996, p. 125). The studies Hamer reviews 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 show 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).

Hamer continues by directing our attention to two of the more than 300 known neurotransmitters, dopamine – the brain's chemical for pleasure – and serotonin, the neurochemical with whose reduced activity misery appears (Freeman, 1997) (see also Depue, et al., 1994; and Goleman, 1996, p. B9). Neurotransmitters pass information from the synapse or junction between a nerve cell and another nerve cell or a 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 University of Wisconsin comments: this is “the first time there's been a specific connection between a molecular genetic finding and people's levels of happiness” (Goleman, 1996, p. B9; see also Ebstein, et al., 1996).

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).

Two issues emerge from the above story. First, the scientific definition of happiness centres on the notion of physical well being, or of “feeling good”. Second, science concerns itself with long and short term causes of happiness in this life; it makes no claims about happiness in an afterlife.

 

5. The impending clash

 

A clash looms between religious and scientific accounts of the nature of human happiness. A clash within the implicit religion of the pursuit of happiness. Scientists define happiness as physical well being, while theologians define it as spiritual or intellectual satisfaction. Religious thinkers seek to understand happiness in the future as well as the present, while scientists concentrate firmly on the here and now. Even more important, these two disciplines differ in their methodology: science is an empirical venture which constructs and tests hypotheses, while, traditionally, the only empirical aspect of theology has been its consistency with scriptures, tradition, and religious experience. With regard to the physical universe, the traditional approach to theology construes it as non-empirical.

Can genes and neurotransmitters shed any light on spiritual happiness or on happiness to come in life after death? Do the genes of the religious predispose them towards greater happiness?

Many spiritual believers—emphasising the sacred element of implicit religion—simply ignore or try to rebut claims for the genetic basis of happiness.

For example, journalist Sharon Begley emphasises that several claims for the genetic roots of various behaviors run into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research (Begley, 1996; see also Goleman, 1996). She points out that one recent  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, 1996b; 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 visualise and mentally manipulate parts of objects (Bower, 1996a). 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 scepticism.

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 other objections Begley reports are trivial. For instance:

·    fraud in one instance (which does not mean they all are fraudulent);

·    behavioral geneticists do their statistics incorrectly (they should do them correctly, of course, if their colleagues are to consider their work valid);

·    the claim that one gene generates a trait (now researchers usually attribute a trait to a configuration of genes) (see also Flint, et al., 1995; Lykken, et al., 1992; Plomin, 1990; Plomin, Owen, and McGuffin, 1994).

Grant Steen, a medical researcher at the Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, reports several sceptical reactions to 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 non-twins or Black males (Steen, 1996). Again, a comparison of results from different population groupings deflates this objection (Gose, 1996).

Other critics say that behavioral geneticists like Hamer try to reduce the holistic 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.

 

6.  Resolving the issue

 

More and more work is emerging to support the genetic program—before too long, research may well unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness. Since few doubt that happiness at least builds upon a biochemical base, theology must include this fact in its world view. Religious thinkers must begin to take this evidence as seriously as do scientists; failure to do this oversimplifies reality in the way that theologians claim scientists do.

Edward Bailey points out that implicit religion combines the sacred with the profane. And room does exist here for both scientific and religious stories. While genes may determine 80% of our long-term happiness, the other 20% is determined non-genetically and, though genes determine our average set-point, our moods still fluctuate within that set-point.

Given these factors, we argue that scientific and religious claims regarding the nature of happiness can and should be compatible and that each discipline should inform the other. In order to do this, we propose the adoption of an overarching empirical framework that makes possible the evaluation of both scientific and religious hypotheses concerning the nature of happiness. Central to this approach is an understanding that experimental results begin their lives as scientific hypotheses and predictions, which are initially on the same conceptual footing as religious theoretical claims. We simply want to take the religious claims one step further by putting them to the empirical test.

Both sides must take on board the following points for this empirical framework to be successful:

·    Any complete explanation of the nature of happiness is likely to involve spiritual as well as physical aspects because all human traits involve environment, circumstances and individual wilfulness, as well as genes.

·    Theology is therefore initially justified in claiming that happiness must involve more than an account of the action genes, electrical activity and chemicals. However, it must couch such claims in a form that science may evaluate.

·    Both scientists and theologians should adopt an open, interdisciplinary approach to concepts of mutual interest, such as happiness, and be prepared to accept that spiritual and physical explanations are not mutually exclusive.

 

7.  Toward establishing an empirical approach

 

To argue that science and religion should jointly adopt a mutual empirical framework is the easy part. The hard question is suggesting exactly how or by what means we might scientifically evaluate religious claims about the nature of happiness. We do not pretend to have anything close to a satisfactory answer. However, what follows are some pointers toward ways in which such claims might be evaluated.

The most recent research on the genetic and biochemical bases of human behavior moves further and further away from any kind of reductionist approach. While our genetic inheritance largely determines the ways in which we behave, serious attention now focuses on other factors which combine with the action of our genes to produce a complete explanation of the ways in which we approach and interact with the world. In particular, attention focuses on the roles played by environment and/or culture.

Several developments highlight the role of environment/culture:

·    Interaction with other members of a social group affects how individuals in the group behave. For instance, Greta Agren and other researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm discovered that when they injected a rat with a hormone called oxytocin (which has painkilling and anxiety reducing properties), the other (non-injected) rats in the cage also started to feel less pain. Agren concludes that rats can smell the condition of their cage mates and, in response to the smell of rats with high levels of oxytocin, they mobilise their own supplies of oxytocin (Motluk, 1997). A long-term study of pre-schoolers by psychologist Grazyna Kochanska illustrates the effect of social interaction on human behavior. It suggests that the development of conscience depends both on children’s natural approach to the world (presumably governed by their genetic inheritance) and on specific parental practices. Fearful children become conscientious if they receive gentle discipline based on encouragement as opposed to coercion, whereas fearless children ignore gentle discipline and only become conscientious when they share a co-operative, loving and secure relationship specifically with their mother (Kochanska, 1997; summarised in Bower, 1997).

·    Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, states that, “We create an environment that’s correlated with our genetic propensity. If that’s the case, little genetic differences can push us in different directions, and become larger as we go through life” (Holmes, 1997). For example, someone who has a natural gift for sport is likely to seek out an environment which features sport and other sports people. This sporty environment then serves to stimulate the relevant genes, thereby further increasing the individual’s natural sporting ability. In this way, our genes direct us toward particular environments and, in return, these environments increase the behavioral effects produced by our genes.

·    A number of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and psychologists believe that cultural practices as well as DNA may serve to determine which genes pass on to future generations. This is known as gene-culture co-evolution (see Spinney, 1997, for an overview). Marc Feldman of Stanford University provides the example of drinking milk: to digest cow’s milk, humans must produce the enzyme lactase (which facilitates the absorption of lactose, milk sugar) – if they cannot, they become sick. Up to 90 percent of people in societies which have drunk milk for around 300 generations can produce lactase. In societies which do not have a history of milk drinking, however, four out of five people carry a different version of the enzyme and so become sick when they drink milk (see also Laland, 1995, for a genetic/cultural approach to human handedness).

The recent interest in a combination of genetic and cultural/environmental approaches effects religious explanations of behavioral traits such as happiness.

Scholars have traditionally construed concepts such as environment and culture as non-scientific and fuzzy – the domain of sociology rather than of hard science. They have labelled these concepts as difficult to define and evaluate. Yet we now find that they are accepted by (at least some) scientists, who evaluate and use them in scientific explanations of behavior. If this is so for claims about cultural and environmental contributions, why not also for claims about religious contributions? Religion was construed in the past as fuzzy and outside the scientific realm, yet it is certainly part of our cultural and (social) environmental heritage. Science should also take religious concepts and explanations seriously.

The following questions become pertinent to ask (and to answer within the bounds of a general empirical framework, as we outlined in the previous section) regarding religious and genetic explanations of happiness:

·    Does faith (and so, presumably, happiness) increase with involvement in a religious environment?

·    Is our personal set point for happiness an indicator of how religious a person we are?

·    Religious people declare themselves happy more often than non-religious people—do the set points of religious versus non-religious people reflect this?

·    Do happy religious individuals tend to breed happy religious offspring?

·    Can science make sense of religious claims about happiness to come in the afterlife?

·    Might we equate our children’s happiness with our own happiness in the hereafter?

 

8.  Conclusion

 

British people trust the word of scientists 59 percent of the time and that of religious organisations only 22 percent, according to a recent study on judging risk (Marris and Langford, 1996). Though this situation may not be satisfactory, it is not surprising.

Antonio Preti and Paola Miotto state in a recent paper on creativity and evolution: “The proper elaboration of the primary creative effort requires the development and the testing of the new idea against scientific and aesthetic standards, which are, of course, of a social nature” (Preti and Miotto, 1997, sec. 3).  No world religion currently follows this maxim when making claims about the physical universe (for example, human behavioral traits such as happiness). Scientists need to realise that standards other than the scientific exist, and that culture and environment to some extent influence all standards.

We ask that we all move beyond the hostility and ignorance which science and religion so often display toward one another. We ask that science and religion heed one another’s claims, and work within the framework of implicit religion, aiming to adopt a mutual system which views these claims as compatible and evaluable. We believe that it should then be possible to arrive at a richer, more holistic picture of the nature of human happiness in which physical and spiritual aspects fuse rather than oppose. This approach develops the humanist and multiple focus understandings within implicit religion.

 

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Kevin Sharpe, The College of Graduate Studies, The Union Institute; The Ian Ramsey Centre, Faculty of Theology, Oxford University; Science & Spirit Resources, Inc. Mailing address: 16 Rivercourt, 1 Trinity Street, Oxford OX1 1TQ, U.K. Email ksharpe@science-spirit.com.

Rebecca Bryant, Oxford, U.K. Email rebecca@serenity.u-net.com.