Happiness disected

Happiness disected

What would it mean to be able to genetically engineer happiness? Could it be that with the discovery of the right genetic hot spots, a rosy outlook would be as easily attainable as vitamin-enriched corn?

Yoram Barak, a researcher with Tel Aviv University in Israel, hopes so. He’s out to map the genes implicated in controlling how happy we are (or aren’t), anticipating that one day scientists will be able to use his findings to “_√£√Ąmanipulate’ the systems identified for increasing happiness,” as he explained in an email to me.

The process is appealing for its obviousness, for what seems like the near-inevitably that the mystery is bound to be solved by the right genetic cartographer. And such an easy application: Find the happiness switch (or the eight hundred). Turn on. Enjoy.

But is the simplicity elegant or just conveniently reductive? There are so many questions that the genetic approach doesn’t seem equipped to address, like, who gets to decide which brand of happiness we’re after in the first place? (Potent and staccato or diluted and sustained? Reality-enhancing or distorting? Self-aggrandizing or humbling?) How do we account for the way happiness matures and transforms and takes on new definitions over a lifetime?

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