Monday, January 25, 2010

Genetic Happiness?

Somewhere in the blogosphere is quote by Robertson Davies, the late Canadian novelist, about happiness. I meant to copy and remember it but I didn't so I may be remembering askew and aslant. But I think the crux of his elegantly put thought was that people are born with genetic or temperamental skews toward optimism or pessimism, or, otherwise put, happiness or unhappiness. I realize we are in a period when attributing all kinds of things to genes is in vogue and that very little is that simple -- maybe blue or brown eyes or maybe even that is not so simple.

I think everyone who has been a young mother whose friends were mostly other young mothers, knows that children are born with very noticeable temperaments. In those young mother days we also firmly believe that whatever we do will greatly influence our children's future lives and we feel anxiously responsible. We worry about our raised voices, our timing of toilet training, our strong desire to give a tantrum throwing two-year old a whack on the seat of his diaper padded pants. As we watch those children grow into teens we are often totally bewildered: what did we do to deserve what they're doling out to us? But time goes by and in it's fullness they become adults and some temperamental characteristics we noticed way back in earliest babyhood assert themselves. Some are solid and serious, some are silly and flighty, some are a mass of confusions, and so on. Some become adults who find their place in the world and are happy in the overall scheme of things. Others have problem after problem and in the worst cases serious depressions and misery.

So what do I know about happiness? I do believe Davies is right; some tendency is inborn and whatever we did as young mommies didn't change that. Whatever my mother did didn't make much difference either. I am a person who has an inner sense of balance which has been upset at certain points in my life. I am asked to make a list of ten things that make me happy; it's both good to do and ridiculous. We aren't asked to define happiness: for me it's mostly contentment interlaced with moments of quiet pleasure. Sometimes there are periods of acute pleasure -- watching DVDs of operas last fall, especially of Beverly Sills in Marriage of Figaro, and the second act of Tales of Hoffman, just as examples.

We can increase our own happiness by seeking out the things we love; and we can increase other people's happiness with acts of kindness, random or calculated. Happiness by it's definition is a good about which everyone would agree. And those who don't have a genetic disposition are, perhaps, even more susceptible to gifts of happiness than others. Davies said something more profound and eloquent, I'm sorry I've had to ramble instead of quote.

[Photo: I am hiking toward a wonderful castle in the Czech Republic on a beautiful sunny day. Isn't that something that would make anyone happy?]


standing on my head said...

as the dalai lama said, "if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. if you want to be happy, practice compassion."

most of us forget (or don't know) that genes indicate tendencies, not absolutes. we have more say in our happiness than we are aware of.

Gabriela Abalo said...

Could it be the following quote:
"Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness" ~Robertson Davies

I love this quote from Davies, for me it describes perfectly what happiness is.
Happiness is a choice not an accident.

I enjoyed reading your post.


June Calender said...

Thank you, Gabi, maybe it was on your blog. That IS the quote. I so agree that happiness cannot be "demanded", I'm not sure it an be plucked either, but it may be found. Or, better, as "Standing" and the His Holiness say, be caring about others. I did not mean to suggest that genes do more than produce a tendency. I think the "Pursuit of happiness" phrase seems to have mislead an awful lot of people who think it's their own, and not others' happiness they should pursue.

Kass said...

I agree about a pre-disposition for happiness (or at least temperment). My oldest was born with a meloncholy that has endured. My second, from the beginning has had wry humor. His first word was "tickle." My third was exuberant inside my womb and used to jump around the furniture in glee so much, I questioned why he did this. His 3-year-old reply: "Because I'm so HAP....PY all the time!" My 4th was even and calm until she hit puberty. After working out hormonal and other life issues, she is quite even and calm again.

It sounds like you would be a fun person to hang with.

John Ettorre said...

True enough about kids and their unique temperments, Jane. And of course dads who are even half paying attention notice the same thing.