Debating Human Happiness

Human Nature and Happiness
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 15 2002 2:06 PM

Debating Human Happiness

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First of all, thanks to both of you for gracing the pages of Slate. It's nice to be in the company of two of America's most eminent psychologists. And congratulations on your new books, and all the attention they're getting.

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To judge by the press coverage, at least, one might guess that there's some intellectual tension between the two books. Marty, your book, Authentic Happiness, is being described as upbeat and hopeful. And certainly its subtitle—"Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment"—isn't loaded with negative vibes. Steve, your book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, has been described as presenting a "tragic" view of human nature. And, though you'd probably call that an oversimplification, I think you'd agree that in some ways life would be easier if the view your book debunks—of an infinitely malleable human mind—were closer to the truth than it is.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

So for starters, I'd like to ask you, Steve, whether your book, with its emphasis on the role of genes in shaping the mind, indeed paints such a grim picture. And, Marty, in reply I hope you'll tell us how your prescription for happiness reckons with the sometimes stubborn limits that genes place on our potential.

To get a little more specific: Steve, your book emphasizes the importance of genes in two senses, and I think Marty basically agrees with you in both cases. But each of these senses would seem to complicate the search for happiness.

First, Steve, you endorse evolutionary psychology, which holds that there is a fairly firm and universal human nature. People in America and Bhutan may in some ways behave quite differently, but if you peer beneath the cultural overlay, you find minds that are basically the same, featuring, for example, the same basic set of emotions, deployed in generally predictable fashion. And various features of human nature would seem to make "lasting fulfillment" elusive. To take a pretty fundamental example: Natural selection didn't "design" us to be lastingly fulfilled. An eternally happy animal would presumably sit around and bask in bliss, rather than do those useful things that anxiety and restlessness provoke us to do—find food and mates, cement alliances, stay vigilant against threats, etc. In other words, lasting contentment would seem to be a prescription for genetic oblivion, in which case genes highly conducive to it presumably wouldn't have survived natural selection; happiness, it seems, is "designed" to evaporate shortly after we attain it by reaching some goal. (Hence addictive behavior—the repeated pursuit of repeatedly vanishing gratification.) And various other features of human nature—rage, jealousy, etc.—would also seem to complicate the quest for bliss.

Second, Steve, you endorse something that is commonly confused with evolutionary psychology but is actually a separate field—behavioral genetics. This field, while not denying the universality of a basic human nature, nonetheless studies genetic differences among people. Yes, anxiety is a part of human nature, and it's elicited by the same basic things in all cultures; but I'm more anxious than my brother, and behavioral geneticists ask how much of such differences is due to genetic difference. And, with all the major personality traits—extroversion, conscientiousness, etc.—they conclude that genetic difference is of non-trivial importance. Of course, these estimates of a trait's "heritability" in a given population don't necessarily tell us anything about any given particular case, such as me and my brother (and for that matter "heritability" is a slippery concept in some other ways, too). Still, behavioral genetics raises the prospect that maybe from birth the chances were overwhelmingly high that I'd always be more anxious than my brother, and that Marty's book can't help me—bad news for me, bad news for Marty.

Broadly speaking, then, I'm asking both of you to tell us whether the role of genes in shaping our everyday experience is legitimately depressing news—and if not, why not? I hope this question helps get the dialogue going, after which you two can take it wherever you want.

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