A Happy Day May Be Just a Pill Away

Article excerpt


To what extent is happiness technologically achievable? I don't mean health, wealth or children with high achievement-test scores, but the actual psychological state. Parts of the pharmaceutical industry and allied professions think it may be possible.

Of course, it already is done to some extent. Most of us have had a good cup of coffee on a spring morning and felt that the world was just a wonderful place. Caffeine has its virtues. Likewise, many people become mildly euphoric after a couple of cocktails. We don't think of these as pharmaceuticals, but they are.

Today, we have the antidepressants, such as Prozac, Depakote, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and so on. Most of these are what are called SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a substance that travels across a synapse, or gap between two nerve cells, to pass along a nerve impulse. After being released in the gap, it is reabsorbed. Because serotonin is thought to have a calming effect, if the reuptake can be slowed, the person's mood improves. Or so says the theory.

Two points about today's psychotropic drugs:

First, in some cases, they work very well indeed. A woman of my acquaintance, depressed to the point of paralysis for no discernible reason, began taking Wellbutrin. Since then she has been cheerful and highly energetic. In other instances, these drugs have had varied degrees of success, even none.

Second, they are widely used.

That's where we are today. But neurochemistry advances. There are now people with serious credentials who think we soon will be able to control chemically many aspects of personality. They are not necessarily right. There are other technologies that have been on the verge of taking off for 40 years, and haven't done anything. …