Happiness secret may lie in genes

By Kent Ward,
Posted Aug. 26, 2011, at 6:54 p.m.

While awaiting my turn to hop into the barber’s chair for a haircut, I picked up a magnificently dawg-eared magazine that appeared to have been in the barbershop’s collection since the Great Depression and turned to an article about the secret of happiness.

The story reported that scientists have concluded that happiness is largely determined by genes rather than by outside reality. They contend there is a “set point” for happiness that functions much like a presumed factor in weight control, in which the brain appears to be wired to turn the body’s metabolism up or down to maintain a predetermined weight.

The unexpected turns of life may nudge this genetically determined mood level upward or downward, but only for a while, I learned. Over time, the ill-tempered old grouch who appears to have turned over a new leaf of civility will return to his usual state of short-fused surliness, just as the bubbly extrovert who had been suffering through an uncharacteristic low spell will ultimately return to spreading sunshine and happiness wherever she may wander.

The leopard cannot change its spots. We are who we are — stuck with toting whatever baggage we carried with us when we rode into town — and, short of undergoing a personality transplant, there is precious little to be done about it. The findings were not particularly surprising, and I hope the researchers didn’t spend a great deal of money on the project.

If our genes dictate our fate wherein it pertains to happiness or crankiness, does it follow that they may also be the controlling factor in our other traits? Physical agility, perhaps? Or truthfulness?

Say you were a bumbling kid in high school, lovable to a fault, maybe, but a real Gawmy Gus nonetheless. Are the chances good that you remain somewhat of a klutz to this day, prone to bumping into things — a person who probably should stay away from power tools, guns and any household chore requiring the use of sharp objects?

A set-point for truthfulness would, I suppose, vary from one person to another, as suggested in a couple of old newspaper clippings from my bottomless in-basket. One clipping tells of an irate Hong Kong woman who vowed to appeal a shoplifting conviction to a higher court because a local judge did not believe her insistent claim that the reason she had walked out of a department store wearing two bras was because it was March, and cold outside.

By contrast, the other clip reports that when St. Louis police answered a business alarm, detaining a man found at the scene and asking him what he was doing there, honesty compelled him to reply, “A burglary, I guess.” Guess so, agreed a cop, as he applied the handcuffs.

A couple of items in the morning newspaper earlier this week gives one cause to consider whether the set-point gene pool theory might somehow figure in the rash things we do. An article out of Bath reported that a young man who climbed atop a train in Rockland and fell asleep safely rode his iron steed 45 miles to Bath before disembarking with an assist from the long arm of the law.

The man told a Bath policeman he awoke early in the journey and decided to stay on his perch until someone spotted him. He said he felt safe because the car he was riding on had railings on both sides. Presumably the guardian angel riding on his shoulder felt safe, as well, sticking with him to the end of his bizarre commute.

Meanwhile, in Utah, a boy who tried to get into a neighbor’s home by sliding feet-first down a chimney became stuck for more than four hours before being rescued. A while back, there was a story in the paper about workers finding in a chimney the remains of a man who apparently had unsuccessfully tried a similar stunt nearly three decades ago. And on it goes.

The bottom line in the aforementioned barbershop magazine article seemed to be that some things we do make us happy, which is smart, and some actions result in unhappiness, which is dumb. Smart and happy beats dumb and unhappy every time, but our genes may have the final say in where we wind up on life’s happiness scale.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/08/26/opinion/contributors/happiness-secret-may-lie-in-genes/ printed on April 25, 2014