The survival of the happiest

The pursuit of happiness may be a big waste of time if one professor’s theory about genetic jolliness is to be believed

If marketing has a single overriding effect it is to make people happy. Clients whose sales of goods and services are enhanced through marketing should be happy. So should their employees, who have both work and an increased prospect of security. And, since this is a reciprocal arrangement, marketing companies should likewise be happy. Consumers, of course, are delirious with glee.

True, there are those who argue that marketing creates false wants, generates envy, promotes greed, and causes unhappiness. But such people have never felt the thrill of a new shaving experience nor exulted in the taste-tingling piquancy of a Marks & Spencer luxury taramasalata (with serving suggestion). Not for them the pride of ownership betrayed in the flicking of a speck from the gleaming bonnet of a Ford, nor the strutting confidence that comes with a fits-where-it-touches Armani suit.

The world, in short, is divided between those who respond to the invigorating, life-enhancing stimulus of the market and those who decry the acquisitive society and would have us purge ourselves through denial. The two positions are irreconcilable and in constant conflict. However, there is now evidence that the marketers must inevitably win. Indeed, the research suggests that their opponents ought by now to be extinct.

According to Professor David Lykken of the University of Minnesota there is a happiness gene. Not that he’s actually isolated it – he’s a behavioural scientist not a geneticist – rather that he believes there must be, so it makes him happy.

Humans, he says, evolved not through the survival of the fittest but the happiest. “Back in the Pleistocene, when our ancestors were developing by natural selection the traits that now characterise our species, it seems to me plausible to think that the grouches and the doleful were less successful, especially in the mating game, and less likely to pass the happy genes on,” he explains.

Upbeat types, he adds, were also probably better at catching food and securing shelter. That makes sense. When you set out to tangle with a mammoth it pays to do so with a certain lightness of step and a song in your heart. Nor is it hard to imagine the kind of Pleistocene long-face who would reject cave after cave on the grounds that they were north-facing or draughty or had the wrong shade of fungus.

“Happy people have certain advantages,” says Prof Lykken. “People like them. They are attractive. Happiness seems to be an antidote to illness – happy people get sick less often, or get well more quickly.”

It’s an attractive theory – borne out, apparently, by studies of thousands of identical twins, all of whom were similarly happy regardless of the differing hands dealt them by life – but leaves unexplained the persistent survival of people who join the Health Education Authority and all those others who lobby energetically to make people good, and therefore happy, against their will and regardless of their consequent misery.

There is, of course, a simple explanation that seems not to have occurred to Prof Lykken: it is that, for some people, to be miserable is to be happy. For them, to grumble and moan is a source of satisfaction, often profound. Similarly, there are those to whom bossiness and authoritarianism is deeply pleasurable.

This phenomenon is consistent with Prof Lykken’s theory of the survival of the happiest and explains why, in the ascent of man, the joyful reveller has never shaken off the miserable sod. Each is happy in his own way, each has the gene that makes him so.

Were Prof Lykken a philosopher and not a student of identical twins, he would know that happiness is not an end in itself but a by-product of the pursuit of other ends. For some it is found in the growing of a geranium, for others in its crushing. When the founding fathers of America talked of the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, they talked guff. For in taking his pleasure one man might destroy another, or at least make him thoroughly wretched.

None of this detracts from the fundamental effectiveness of the market as a means of establishing and satisfying wants and needs. The market does not lie, it expresses genuine preferences. The market is morally neutral. There are legal and illegal markets. Markets in Smarties and in drugs. Interestingly, however, there is no market in wowserism. The wowser is unique in providing supply when there is no demand. There is no call for his homilies, and no popular response to his urging of bans and prohibitions, and yet he survives. It must be the happiness gene that keeps him going.

So, although marketing is indeed an agent of happiness – if by happiness we mean the satisfaction of desires – it is so in a Benthamite sense ie a free market produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In Soviet Russia, where there was no market, a handful of people were extremely happy; they had power, limousines, dachas, and plentiful food and drink. Safe to say, the masses were less happy.

In a critique of Prof Lykken’s work, another US academic, Dr Dean Hamer, says that while the evidence for “happiness genes” is convincing, we should not give up trying to be happy. On this subject, however, I prefer Edith Wharton’s thought: “If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.”

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