December 3, 2022

Is happiness genetically determined?

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory, according to Albert Schweitzer. Only half right, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Human Genetics. Happiness is in your genes. The long versions of the 5-HTTLPR gene to be precise.

YOUR DESTINY DEPARTMENT: Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory, according to Albert Schweitzer. Only half right, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Human Genetics. Happiness is in your genes. The long versions of the 5-HTTLPR gene to be precise. The study is based on a questionnaire answered by 2,574 American adolescents. “It's the first formal finding of a happiness gene, although I'm sure others will be found,” says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve of the London School of Economics, a co-author of the study. He has written another paper showing that genetics explains about one-third of the variation in human happiness which is soon to be published in Econometrica.

It was only a short step from this finding to the suggestion that we may be able to genetically engineer happy children. Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the 2008 book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, told The Guardian: “This exciting work offers insights that one day may help us counter disorders such as depression. Parents one day might have the choice of whether to choose genes that will create a child who is more satisfied with his or her life.”

Coincidentally, a columnist for Scientific American, John Horgan, expressed his exasperation with genetic determinism recently. He was discussing the so-called “warrior gene” which purportedly predisposes people to fits of berserker rage:

“The warrior gene resembles other pseudo-discoveries to emerge from behavioral genetics, like the gay gene, the God gene, the high-IQ gene, the alcoholism gene, the gambling gene and the liberal gene… The abysmal record of behavioral genetics stems from two factors. First, the quest for correlations between thousands of genes and thousands of traits and disorders is prone to false positives, especially when traits are as squishy as “aggression” and “childhood trauma… Second, the media—including respected scientific journals like Science and PNAS as well as shows like Dr. Phil—are prone to hyping “discoveries” that will attract attention.”

Michael Cook
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