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See Inside June 2006

Favored by the Gods

Happiness, according to current scientific thinking, depends less on our circumstances than on our genetic endowment
STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS
by Daniel Gilbert
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS
by Jonathan Haidt
Basic Books, 2006

HAPPINESS: A HISTORY
by Darrin M. McMahon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006

The sky was smeared with the lights from the midway, spinning, blinking, beckoning to risk takers, but I decided to go for a different kind of thrill: Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, the Siamese Twins, were at the Minnesota State Fair. Feeling some guilt, I bought my ticket and cautiously approached the window of the trailer they called home. Thirty years old, joined at the stomach, they were sitting on a sofa, craning their necks to watch television.

Twenty-five years later I am still struck by this dizzying conjunction of the grotesque and the mundane. Trying to project myself into their situation--a man with two heads, two men with one body--I felt only sickness, horror and a certainty that I would rather be dead. Yet there they were, traveling from town to town, leading some kind of life.

When we try to envision another's happiness, we suffer from arrogance and a poverty of imagination. In 1997, when science writer Natalie Angier interviewed Lori and Reba Schappell, connected at the back of the head and sporting different hairdos, each insisted that she was basically content.

"There are good days and bad days--so what?" Reba said. "This is what we know. We don't hate it. We live it every day." Lori was as emphatic: "People come up to me and say, 'You're such an inspiration. Now I realize how minor my own problems are compared to yours.' But they have no idea what problems I have or don't have, or what my life is like.''

Three recent books--two by scientists and one by a historian--take on the quest for the good life, in which common sense and the received wisdom of the ages is increasingly confronted by findings from psychology, neuroscience and genetics.

In the fight for survival, evolution has naturally molded our nervous systems to respond more quickly to the negative than to the positive. Before the late-blooming forebrain can reason that the hiss we hear is from an espresso machine, the primitive amygdala whispers "snake." Depending on which part of the brain is paid more heed, a person will tend to be glum and anxious or cheerful and daring, but the choice may be beyond control.

Each of us, it seems, has an emotional "set point" or "cognitive style" that is genetically rooted and hard to budge. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, observes that lottery winners and paralysis victims quickly return to equilibrium, regaining the level of joy--or sadness--they felt before their brush with fate. How Ronnie, Donnie, Lori, Reba and the rest of us feel about life may depend less on circumstance than on natural disposition, the shape of the brain.

Knowing nothing of neurology, the ancient Greeks equated happiness with being favored by the gods, something over which they were powerless. This fatalism is frozen in our language. Happiness, happenstance, haphazard, hapless--all derive from the same root. In Happiness: A History, Darrin M. McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, charts how this germ of an idea changed over time. With Christianity, happiness became something to aspire to in the afterlife, and with the Enlightenment something to pursue on earth. From there it was a natural progression to the smiley face (invented in 1963, McMahon tells us, by one Harvey R. Ball) and the decision by the country of Bhutan to measure its economy according to "gross national happiness."

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