Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.
This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.
The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.
In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.
Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.
A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”
Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”
As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”
It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.
In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.
So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?
This week I learned I have “hammertoes” on my left foot and that I’m going to need surgery to fix the problem. It was not a highlight of the week, obviously.
“Hammertoes” is an embarrassing name for an affliction. Even worse, the name always make me think of the “Hammer time” passage in M.C. Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This. It refers to a condition in which the muscle, ligament, and joint of a toe become imbalanced, causing the middle joint to bend permanently. In my case, the second toe of my left foot has not only become arched, but has twisted and is overlapping with its neighbor, my big toe. This makes wearing shoes a painful exercise. Even worse, the next two toes also have begun to curl over, and their twisting and torquing adds to the discomfort.
The result is a left foot in which only the big toe and little toe are normal, and the middle three look like gnarled, freakish deviltoes that need an exorcist. If I were barefoot on a beach in this condition, mothers would grab their young children and flee. It’s weird, too, to see the toes on a x-ray, where the skeleton beneath the skin is exposed in all of its monstrous deformity.
Hammertoes can be caused by a number of things. In my case, the doctor says it’s genetic rather than being caused by wearing shoes that are too tight. I don’t know of anyone in my family, extending back several generations, who had this problem, but I’ll accept the diagnosis because it means I’m not personally to blame. It also means I’m going to need to keep a close eye on my right foot, to see whether I can detect the telltale signs of new toe betrayal.
As health problems go, hammertoes is small stuff. I’ll have outpatient surgery in which the muscle, ligament and joint are restored to their proper alignment, pins will be inserted into the rebellious toes to keep them in line, and I’ll have to gimp around on crutches and later in a walking boot. I won’t be able to take my customary morning walk for months. Instead, I’ll be sitting in a chair, with visions of M.C. Hammer in his funky pants dancing in my head.
Recently a friend survived a heart attack. He didn’t smoke, kept his weight down, ate the right things, and got exercise. But his father had had a heart attack, and when my friend reached his mid-50s, so did he.
When something like that happens to a person you know, it shakes you. You think about your own family medical history and wonder how many of those health problems were due to lifestyle and how many to awesome genetic forces lurking deep within our cells, like tiny time bombs that could explode with devastating consequences at any moment, irrespective of how much lettuce you eat? Did my father, uncle, and grandfather die of cancer because they were heavy smokers, or because of some squamous anomaly in their mitochondria that was triggered by strands of DNA without regard to intake of tar and nicotine?
And, probing even deeper into the levels of introspection, what would you prefer the answers to these questions to be? Are you a fatalist who is more comfortable thinking you’ve already been dealt all the cards and just have to play the hand as well as you can? If you could take a test and determine, conclusively, that the raging fires of cancer were going to consume your body no matter what you did, would you want to know so you could adjust your lifestyle accordingly and move down the spectrum to enjoy the delightful but unhealthy things you’ve avoided? Or would you rather hope that your good behavior and healthy lifestyle could win you a reprieve from the otherwise inevitable genetic snare?
I’m in the latter category. I’d like to think that my decisions make a difference to the equation and might have an impact on whether I keel over in the near future. My friend’s situation makes me think, however: “Am I just kidding myself?”
What makes some people so long-lived? In the classic science fiction story Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein postulated that extreme longevity could be achieved by genetics. Encourage long-lived families to mate with each other, and in a few generations you would produce the ageless Lazarus Long, who lived well past the age of 200.
Now researchers, too, are looking at the genetics of longevity. Recently maps of the genomes of two 114-year-olds — 114 years! — were published, and scientists are examining the data, trying to figure out what has made the two so amazingly long-lived. So far, the answer is: who knows? The supercentenarians don’t seem to have different genetic structures, or genes that perform different functions. Yet, somehow, they have lived far longer than the average person.
Obviously, there is an environmental component of extreme age. If you live in a war zone, or a disease-ridden area, you are less likely to live a long life. As time passes, however, genetics plays an increasingly significant role. The super-old don’t experience dementia. They don’t have problems with cardiovascular disease, or Parkinson’s disease. They’ve managed to avoid other diseases and conditions that routinely fell individuals who make it past 80, too. But what is it that they have that others don’t?
Figuring out whether there is a genetic key that allows people to live longer is likely to be a focus of medical research in the future. If drug companies will spend billions developing allergy medication and sexual performance drugs, what would they spend to discover a drug that approximates the effect of special genetic conditions of supercentenarians and allows humans with “average” genes to live super-long lives?
In the meantime, the rest of us will just hope that we inherited the genetic secrets of our most long-lived ancestor.