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Genetics and happiness

11 Feb

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           Daniel Kahneman’s comment that a propensity for happiness is in part genetically determined came as a surprise to me (see this blog, October 9th 2013). Many of us are deeply disturbed by the notion of genetic determinism, with its abhorrent whiff of eugenics and racial stereotyping. But if our physical make-up really does influence our behaviour and responses – and who could deny that on some levels this has to be true? – then maybe coming to terms with the idea is preferable to trying to ignore it.  I’ve recently read about studies suggesting that in some cases depression may be associated with decreases in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood; and that this area of vulnerability may be hereditary (see, for example, If this is correct, then to me it makes absolute sense that the converse may be true, and our ability to experience happiness may also be to some extent genetic.

          Tentative support for this conclusion has been provided by research carried out by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald (photos above), published in July 2014 (‘National happiness and genetic distance, a cautious exploration’, CAGE Centre and Dept. of Economics, University of Warwick; available online at Their study took as its starting point one of the famous puzzles of social science: why do some rich nations such as Denmark consistently achieve high scores in the happiness tables, while others, like France and Italy, do quite badly? These rankings still hold good even when adjustments are made for socio-economic and cultural variables. In their search for possible explanations, Proto and Oswald have been examining the hypothesis that some nations have an in-built genetic advantage when it comes to happiness. Their findings, they stress, are provisional.

          Proto and Oswald employed three forms of evidence in their study. Firstly they used data on 131 countries derived from a number of international surveys, in order to compare ‘genetic distance’ and well-being.  “The results were surprising,” says Dr.Proto. “We found that the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion, the strength of the welfare state, and geography.”

          The second form of evidence used by Proto and Oswald was research which points to an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene influencing the reuptake of serotonin. Dr.Proto comments, “We looked at existing research which suggests that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in our study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.” Basically, the closer you are to the long version of the gene prevalent in Denmark and the Netherlands, the more likely you are to report life satisfaction.

          Their third form of evidence addresses the question of whether the link between genetics and happiness also holds true across generations, continents and the Atlantic Ocean. Professor Oswald explains, “We used data on the reported wellbeing of Americans, and then looked at which part of the world their ancestors had come from. The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations, even after controlling for personal income and religion.”  He adds, “This study has used three kinds of evidence and, contrary to our own assumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international wellbeing levels.  More research in this area is now needed, and economists and social scientists may have to pay greater heed to the role of genetic variation across national populations.”

          Do these findings strike you as compelling, scary, or just plain ridiculous?  I tend to the first view, while accepting that there is still a long way to go on the research. I take heart from the belief that we may eventually come to understand some of the causes of unhappiness, both physical and cultural. Without understanding, we will never be able to tackle them. And the conclusions of Proto and Oswald should  certainly not be seen as threatening. Equality and social justice have never, in my opinion, been ideals that should apply only to those who are best equipped to fight for them. If people have a predisposition towards unhappiness, that shouldn’t lead us to dismiss them as hopeless cases. On the contrary, it should  make us even more determined to find ways of combating their misery and distress, whatever its causes.


Hope springs eternal – how absurd is that?

10 Dec

exit the king

      Since I find Camus’ absurdist approach to the subject of happiness very compelling   (this blog, 17 and 29 May 2014), it’s not at all surprising that I  should  have really enjoyed a play by one of   the great exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. The weekend before last we saw his Exit the King, first produced in 1962, at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Broadly, the play deals with the themes of mortality and impending death, both for the individual and for human civilisation. Berenger, the king of a nameless country, is now 400 years old. At an early stage in the action his two wives, Marguerite, the elder of the two, and the younger, more fun-loving Marie, learn that the King has got to die by the end of the play.

 MARGUERITE:         It’s the normal course of events, isn’t it?  You were expecting it. Or had you stopped expecting it?

MARIE:                        You’ve been waiting for it.

MARGUERITE:         That way everything’s in order.

MARIE:                        I was still hoping …

MARGUERITE:         You’re wasting your time … Nothing but hope on their lips and tears in their eyes. What a way  to behave…. It’s your fault if he’s not prepared. It’s your fault if it takes him by surprise. … Life was very sweet, with your fun and games, your dances, your processions … ‘We’ve got to live,’ you used to say. But one must never forget …

MARIE:                        He’s so fond of parties …

MARGUERITE:         People know, and carry on as if they didn’t. They know, and they forget …

 When Marguerite volunteers to tell the King that his death is imminent, Marie warns her, ‘Tell him gently… take your time,’ but Marguerite responds, ‘We haven’t the time to take our time… This is the end of your happy days, your high jinks, your bean-feasts … We’ve got a few moments left to do all the things we ought to have done years ago.’

Berenger soon learns the truth, and is distraught. Marie wants him to be allowed more time, but the king’s doctor tells her that an hour will give him all the time he needs. In what I see as a kind of preview of Daniel Kahneman’s views on the value of an ending (this blog, 11 December 2013), he continues:

DOCTOR:               A well-spent hour is better than whole centuries of neglect and failure. Five minutes are enough … ten fully conscious seconds. We’re giving him an hour, three thousand and six hundred seconds. He’s in luck.

 ‘So live for the moment,’ Marie advises her unhappy husband:

MARIE:                   My darling King, there is no past, there is no future.  Remember, there’s only a present that goes   right on to the end, everything is present ..

KING:                    Alas, I’m only present in the past.

Mindfulness is not much help to Berenger, it seems, when he is on the verge of death. He is so attached to the idea of life that when for the first time he begins to question Juliette, the palace’s downtrodden factotum, about the kind of  existence she leads, envy of her ability to carry on living prompts him to play the cock-eyed optimist and  find every dreary aspect of it enchanting. When she tells him about the toothache and the shopping and the endless washing-up, he says, ‘All this is magical, like some celebration …’.  

This kind of senseless mindfulness is the equivalent of telling the poor and oppressed to count their blessings, they’re lucky to be alive. The opium of the masses, in other words. 

Berenger, I think, resembles Admetus, the king in Euripides’  tragedy Alcestis who is told that he can be saved from death if he finds someone to take his place on the journey to Hades. (His young wife Alcestis volunteers, and Admetus allows this to happen). Leaning from the window of his room, Berenger shouts to anyone who can hear him, ‘Who will give me his life? Who will give his life for the King’s? His life for the good old King’s?’

All the other characters gradually leave the stage, and it is Marguerite who finally steers the King towards his end, persuading him to give up all the things that tie him to his existence and make his load a heavy one. ‘It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?’ she says to him when he finally relaxes his grip on life.

In Ionesco’s play, as in Camus’ Sisyphus, the dismissal of the idea of hope represents a refusal to cling on to a sense of purpose and meaning in our absurd lives. Neither author sees this rejection of hope as a counsel of despair. We can still live our lives to the full – in fact the notion that emerges very strongly from Exit the King  is that  we are much more likely to lead fulfilling and useful lives if we accept the inevitability of death at an early stage. Hope is seen by both Camus and Ionesco as a ridiculous and fruitless ploy to evade the all-encompassing Absurd.


More on Daniel Kahneman and the idea of happiness

11 Dec

   Daniel-Kahneman-008[1]       Courtesy of a TED lecture given by Daniel Kahneman in March 2010, available online at now know a bit more about the distinction he makes between our experiencing selves and our remembering selves (see this blog, October 9th 2013).

          According to Kahneman, most of us have within us an experiencing self, who lives in the present, and a remembering self, who is responsible for maintaining the on-going story of our lives. It’s important, he argues, to bear these two selves in mind if we want to have a meaningful discussion about the notion of happiness. In the stories that our remembering self relates about our lives, the endings are of crucial importance. To elaborate on the example of the holiday mentioned in my previous blog, if we’ve had a really enjoyable vacation,  one that was truly appreciated by our experiencing selves, but then on the last day we’re mugged or involved in a serious accident, then our memory is not going to tell a happy story about that holiday, even though at the time we enjoyed about 99% of it.

          Similarly, the duration of an experience is not something that our remembering selves takes much account of. Psychologists, Kahneman says, tell us that the psychological present lasts for about three seconds, so most of us in our lives will enjoy around 600 million present experiences. But when these are over they will be lost for ever – we’re not going to be able to relive them because this is not the story that our remembering selves is keeping for us. So if we do have a happy holiday, say, on the Amalfi coast, with no disasters to cloud its final days, then it makes no difference whether we were staying there for one week or two – if both weeks were equally good we’re not going to create a cumulative and enhanced story about the happiness we enjoyed while we were on holiday there. We had a happy holiday, full stop.

          This for me throws light on the happiness questions posed in the UK’s Integrated Household Survey. ‘Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?’ is, I assume, a question that is being put to our experiencing selves, while ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ is more a question for our remembering selves, the bit of us that stands back and looks at the story of our lives so far. Kahneman says that the correlation between the two perspectives is often very low: we may for example have had a miserable time yesterday, but can still have a sense that our lives are moving in a worthwhile direction and providing us with overall happiness.

          The distinction also throws light on an ancient Greek injunction, ‘Call no man happy till he is dead,’  a translation of two slightly different pronouncements found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.There’s been a lot of debate about what this means, but the significance attributed to the remembering self in Kahneman’s analysis suggests to me that the most convincing interpretation is not that we would all be better off dead, but rather that until we know what has happened in the last stage of somebody’s life, we  – or the part of ourselves that values memory –  cannot possibly tell whether it was a happy life or not.

         So aim for a good ending might be the moral of this account of happiness. Although, since we cannot possibly know when this is going to occur, it might be sensible to do a little to please our experiencing selves along the way.


Emotional happiness and life satisfaction

9 Oct

         Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Daniel Kahneman until he featured on Desert Island Discs during the summer (BBC Radio 4, August 16). He’s an Israeli-American psychologist who specialises in behavioural economics, and in 2002 his work on prospect theory won him a Nobel Prize.  Well-being, or hedonic psychology, has been an important area of research for him in recent years. In other words, he’s interested in what most of us still refer to as happiness.

          Kahneman is a likeable and extremely lucid presenter of ideas, and I’d love to hear more from him. In the radio programme he made a distinction between emotional happiness – how we feel about life when we’re actually living it, and life-satisfaction – how we feel about our lives when we stop and think about them.

          Life-satisfaction, Kahneman explained, is linked to the goals which we set ourselves at an early stage in life. These generally remain the measure of how we rate our life satisfaction as we get older. For example, if when we’re young we decide we want a lot of money, and later on we manage to get it, then we’re satisfied. If on the other hand we say we don’t want a lot of money, then generally speaking we don’t regret this. At the end of our lives we don’t say to ourselves, ‘Oh, I made a big mistake there – I’d have been much happier if I’d been richer.’

          So it seems that there aren’t any absolutes. Money will make you happy if that’s what you want. It won’t make you happy if you never really wanted it in the first place. Simplistic pronouncements about the folly of pursuing wealth – the kind of thing I’m prone to myself – just aren’t good enough if we’re trying to provide a basis for social and moral regulation. Social justice requires us – in my view – to redistribute wealth away from those who have a lot more than enough. But it would be stupid to pretend that most people who have money are going to be happy to go along with this. We have to deal with the fact that they won’t.

          Returning to Kahneman and the issue of life satisfaction, obviously if we fall far short of our personal goals we’re not going to be as satisfied with our lives as we might have been. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy. Kahneman made an interesting point about how our awareness of memory has a role to play in determining our hedonic experiences. Holidays, he said, are often treated as anticipated memories. When you ask people whether, if they were able to have a really enjoyable holiday but without any future memory of it, they would still want to go, the majority say that they wouldn’t. The memories form a really large part of their enjoyment. I think I have to admit that the same applies to me. (Actually in my case the crucial question would be, ‘Would you still want to go on holiday if you weren’t able to tell people about it when you got home?’ But in some ways that might amount to much the same thing – a holiday for a lot of us is an experience that we relish most of all when it’s over.) Kahneman’s advice in response to these attitudes? ‘We need to think more about living and less about remembering our lives.’ I take this as meaning that we ought to focus a bit more on emotional happiness, and less on looking back on our activities and contemplating our success in achieving our various goals.        

          A few other things I gleaned from the programme:

  • ·         Older people often form the happiest group in any society.
  • ·         The people who are most depressed  by their failure to accomplish their early goals are those who wanted to win fame as performers – actors, singers, rock stars, and so on.
  • ·         There is a gene that determines our individual optimism and happiness.

          Is the last really true?