Look what scientists are trying to do to happiness!

Sally Friedman
Sally Friedman

It was bad enough when we found out, thanks to those pedigreed experts, that our bodies had a “set point” for weight, a kind of gravitational pull that would snag us no matter how strict the diet or how perfect the will-power.

So in a sense, we had to accept that the endless seeking of the body beautiful might be doomed from the start.

O.K.–we learned to deal with that.

But now they’re telling us that one of our inalienable rights–the pursuit of happiness–may also be denied us. That there’s a set point to happiness itself.

Come on. I want to believe that we can make ourselves happy by living well, doing good, finding love, giving it back and letting life’s joys fill us to the brim.

But that’s not what the happiness scholars are saying.

The doomsayers are four scholars, two at the University of Minnesota, two at the University of Illinois. They’ve recently announced, evidently after years of investigation, that happiness, too, has a predetermined value to which it inevitably returns. Yup–that miserable set point again.

So now maybe we can all figure out why people who should be delighted by life’s largesse aren’t, and why those with the least visible reasons to be joyful…are.

Can it really be that it’s all pretty much determined at birth, either because of genetics, or because of some complicated distribution of brain chemicals that I, for one, don’t understand.

What I do understand is that this is downright troubling. It makes happiness seem like a kind of wildly random thing. It doesn’t depend on the usual markers like education or economics or success or family life.

It’s just doled out in larger doses to some, and very sparingly to others.

I look around at my own circle, and see evidence that those scholars may be right.

The aunt and uncle who have great wealth–the ones who winter in the Caribbean and summer on the Cape, have cars so exotic they make people gasp, and possessions to die for–this same man and woman got shortchanged on the happiness set point. Bitter, miserable and laden with free-floating anger, they grumble their way through life groping to find whatever it is they seek. Joy, perhaps?

Sam, our college junior grandson, already is living proof, however, that some of us get lucky in the happiness set point department.

Unfailingly good-natured, delighted almost from birth by the mere sight of a human face, even a scowling one, Sam seems bound for turning life into a dance of delight. His younger brother Jonah, the poet/philosopher, already seems to have a vastly different world/life view. And Danny, the red-haired fireplug of a kid is somehow the blend of his brothers. Same parent. Same household. Different happiness set points?

My sister’s set point was fixed at high. So was my late mother’s. My late father and I got more of the introspection genes that don’t always get you to pass “Go” and collect the $200, or whatever it is the Monopoly board doles out these days.

What is still disappointing is the new notion that it’s as hard to make yourself happier as it is to make yourself taller. You can’t even work at being happy, according to these scholars, any more than you can work at having blue eyes if yours happen to be brown.

But I’m taking the whole study with that proverbial grain of salt.

I figure if my set point on weight is fixed, and my set point on happiness is too, maybe I still have a chance to corner the market on hope.

Last I heard, it still springs eternal.


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