Genetically Engineered Happiness

“Let’s fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness”. (Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator)

Cancer. Alzheimer’s. Male pattern baldness. Asthma. Obesity. Cleft palate. These genetic disease (and many more) may someday be treatable by gene therapy. I look forward to that day; in fact, nothing could make me happier than living without fear of mental disorder or bodily dysfunction. Or maybe even death.  But wait! Am I wrong? Could something actually make me biologically happier? Potentially, YES.

Scientists call the “happiness” gene 5-HTT .  This gene controls serotonin transportation in the body, which regulates mood, among other things. Apparently “happiness” genes are old news; according to, David Lykken published a paper on the happiness gene back in 1996, defining happiness as “one’s sense of satisfaction in life”, and claimed that genes influence factors about personality, stress handling, and anxiety levels.  About 50% of a person’s contentment comes from genes, but still, people without the happiness gene might be more at risk for depression, or simply have a lower baseline level of happiness.

All in all, a disease curing and happiness boosting gene therapy package seems like a great present to me!

My birthday is next week; please send all genetic re-programming offers to my health care provider. I’ll pretend to be surprised.

So why, then, does the dystopian genre treat the genetic creation of “happiness” with such fear and horror? Take Brave New World for example.  Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, says “the world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age”.  All of this sounds good, not evil. This is what humankind currently searches for in the genome. Where is the horror in this? Because even as an advocate of gene therapy or genetic predetermination, I still feel that sense of repulsion when reading Brave New World.

I believe this feeling stems from the “other” 50% of happiness: the part not controlled by genetics.  As this article says, happiness also results from external circumstances, like style of living.  We, as individual humans, then, must exert control over what makes each of us happy. Obviously we can’t decide to simply change a tornado’s path of destruction, or an employer’s decision to fire an employee, but we can still choose our own path to happiness (or despair) in the midst of everyday life. In fact, the presence of true joy can arguably not be properly felt in the absence of sorrow. The circumstances of Brave New World takes all those options away.  The people are not only genetically bottled, packaged, and stamped with a letter, but also conditioned into a state of complacency or “happiness”, as the Controller sees it.  I, the reader, see horror in the fact that the characters don’t know what they’re missing, or that they’re missing anything at all, and thus make no effort to search for happiness.  Basically, the Controllers have crossed that thin, thin line from giving humans the best chance for personal happiness, to insuring one idea of personal happiness. The reader becomes John, the Savage, in some ways: we are the outsider, without the “close interpersonal ties and social support” that, according to this article mentioned earlier, are important for that non-genetic 50% of happiness.

Ultimately, this quandary appears to boil down to the question of boundaries or lines or borders of free will: when should we cross them? Should we cross them at all?

“You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness”. (Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator)



~ by wisdomtooth13 on January 27, 2012.

3 Responses to “Genetically Engineered Happiness”

  1. Can’t wait to see your reaction to the novel we’re going to read about the happiness gene: Richard Powers’s *Generosity*.

  2. It’s interesting to think that happiness may be genetically determined; I had never heard of the so-called happiness “gene” before. I think you bring up a great point here: is it possible to feel happy with the binary opposite of happiness, sorrow? If we lived in a world in which suffering did not exist, would we just exist in a sort of emotional “void”? It’s a tough question, because obviously it would be great to eliminate horrible diseases and traumatic events, but it’s also interesting to consider how this lack of suffering might affect the human psyche.

  3. *Typo: I meant to say “without” the binary opposite of happiness.

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