Good Humor Genetics Researchers Set out to Find the Gene of Human Happiness

Article excerpt

As scientists explore and map the genetic material coiled inside human cells, a few have set out on a hunt for the genes for human happiness.

Last month, for example, University of Minnesota researchers published a study showing that identical twins - alike in all their genes - were more likely to report similar levels of happiness than were fraternal twins, who are no more alike than ordinary siblings.

Enthusiasts say they will soon isolate the genes responsible for the identical twins' similar dispositions, and, by finding out what such genes do, develop precision mood drugs. "Everybody will be happier," says geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health. Skeptics argue that while these studies measure some element of temperament, they do not address the more elusive quality of happiness, which may never be reduced to the workings of genetics and chemistry. The study, by psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen, that Hamer cites as convincing tracked 1,500 sets of twins. Half were identical, the other half fraternal. The researchers tried to measure happiness with a questionnaire, which included about 20 true-false statements such as, "I am just naturally cheerful," and "My future looks bright to me." The fraternal twins were only slightly closer in scores than a group of unrelated pairs of people. The identical twins rated their happiness - or despair - about the same. Lykken and Tellegen also studied a smaller group of identical twins raised in different families. The members of each pair shared similar degrees of cheer or gloom, whether princes or paupers. Geneticist Hamer says he interprets this result to mean that people inherit a biologically based temperament, passed down as a complex pattern of interacting genes. "I think it should be possible to find genes that contribute to the underlying factors leading to happiness," he says. In his own work, Hamer has used studies of twins to demonstrate that homosexuality is at least partially a genetically determined trait. Last year he isolated a pattern found in the genes of people who tend to be novelty seekers, that is, adventurous, bold and restless. …