Happiness: Is It In Your Genes or In Your Head?

A super interesting conversation (print length) a few years ago on Slate between Steven Pinker and Martin Seligman. Pinker is one of the most provocative thinkers around (his book Blank Slate is must-read). Seligman is also a distinguished pyschologist and author of Authentic Happiness. They discuss happiness, genetics, human nature, pyschology, and other yummy topics.

Seligman distinguishes between three very different kinds of happy lives: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.

The Pleasant Life is a life of smiles, ebullience, and good cheer. It consists in getting as many of the felt pleasures as possible and using three sets of skills to amplify them: savoring, mindfulness, and variation. Such "positive affectivity" is highly constrained genetically. It is roughly 50 percent heritable, with identical twins much more similar for it than fraternal twins. Like any heritable characteristic (e.g., body weight), the best we can achieve by dint of will and of tuition is to live in the best part of our set range of smiley good cheer. Negative emotionality is also about 50 percent heritable, however, so the 50 percent left over is not what differentiates the plasticity of happiness from rigidity of dysphoria. Rather, Debbie Reynolds notwithstanding, happiness is not just about the Pleasant Life. In fact, Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson would have trouble recognizing American hedonism as the pursuit of happiness.

Half of humankind, genetically in the lower half of positive affectivity, is not smiley and cheerful. They do not look or act like Goldie Hawn, and pleasure-centered ideas of happiness consign these 3 billion people to the hell of unhappiness. But many of these people are enormously capable of the Good Life, what Aristotle called Eudaimonia. The Good Life is a life filled with absorption, immersion, and flow. When we engage in inspiring conversation or listen to great music, for example, time stops for us. We are one with the music. In such a state there is no consciousness, no thought, and no feeling. Afterward we may say, "That was fun," but what we mean is not that there were felt ecstasies, but that we were swept away.

Having the Good Life consists in my view of two steps. The first is simple, the second is difficult. First you need to know what your signature strengths are. Do you "own" social intelligence, or kindness, or fairness, or spirituality, or love of beauty, or integrity? …Next, and this is the hard part, you need to recraft your work, your love, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to use these signature strengths more frequently than you do now. This produces more flow in the activities of daily life. Importantly, while there are shortcuts to the pleasures (e.g., drugs, masturbation, TV shopping), there are no shortcuts to the Good Life. It can be had only through the knowledge and deployment of your signature strengths.

No one has yet discovered genetic constraints on the Good Life. Everyone has signature strengths and everyone is capable of recrafting their lives to use them more. There may turn out to be some heritability of intensity of flow and immersion, but no one has yet found it. So, happiness in the sense of the Good Life likely does not have much in the way of the genetic chains to drag it down, as does the Pleasant Life.

The third happy life, the Meaningful Life, is likely without any genetic constraints at all. The Meaningful Life consists in knowing what your signature strengths are and using them in the service of something much larger than you are. It is hard to imagine how "unfortunate" and double-edged genes could compromise that.

I buy this. I’m part of that 50% who does not have The Pleasant Life, but I certainly have the Good  and Meaningful Life (or at least I’m trying!). Next Pinker recalls a class when he asked his students how much they’d give up to gain a little more happiness. Some IQ? A unique talent? A sibling? Pinker says all these examples hsow that happiness is not our only goal in life.

[This] highlights the most awful aspect of the hedonistic American take on happiness. This take says that happiness is entirely about how we feel, not at all about good commerce with the world. Our colleague and new Nobel laureate, Danny Kahneman, holds a sophisticated version of this take. Danny holds that an event (like a trip to Tuscany or a whole life) is some direct function of the number of pleasureful moments minus the painful moments. I think this is profoundly wrong.

Go read the whole thing.

2 comments on “Happiness: Is It In Your Genes or In Your Head?
  • Very, very interesting stuff.

    Initially, I was going to respond that I disagreed with Pinker’s assertion that the students’ (presumed) refusal to sacrifice “Some IQ? A unique talent? A sibling?” for more happiness, was indicative of a desire for other things in life than happiness. Then I contemplated it and realized how right he was: Happiness is an important goal for most people. But I think that it is complimented by a lot of others that vary somewhat. e.g.: pride, safety, security, dignity, importance, and innumerable others that do not really fit (at least not entirely) under the heading of “happiness.”

  • Right. And this is why Seligman argues that how you *feel* (safe/dignified/important) is not the only criteria. Those may be criteria for the Pleasant Life, but not necessarily for the Good Life or Meaningful Life.

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