The technology of happiness: yesterday, today, tomorrow

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About genetics, Danes, and “mood bots”

More and more gadgets appear every day, but the possibility of live communication remains the main thing for us.

In 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick in England made a statement: they were able to find a strong link between genetics and life characteristics such as happiness and well-being. Scientists have discovered 5-HTTLPR, a serotonin transporter gene that influences the process of converting the neurotransmitters serotonin, a hormone responsible for our mood, sexual desire, and appetite. Their further scientific research aimed to find answers to the following questions:

  • Why, in some countries (especially Denmark), there is a steady increase in the so-called happiness index;
  • Whether this indicator is associated with a particular nation and its genetic makeup.

The study’s authors considered all the main factors affecting people’s overall satisfaction with their lives: profession, religious beliefs, age, gender, and income. As a result, scientists concluded that a predisposition distinguishes the DNA of the Danes at the genetic level to well-being.

In other words, the more Dane you are, the more likely you are to be happy (Shakespeare does not seem to know this).

However, the owners of Danish blood are not the only example of how strong happiness genes can be. In one part of the study, data are presented, according to which every person on Earth is equipped with a set of genetic parameters, including pre-set values ​​for this feeling. If at a certain point in time, we do not experience the joy of another victory or the bitterness of disappointment, then the body will “roll back” into the desired moral state.

Partially, this “assembly point” is determined at the birth of a person at the genetic level, and as for the Danes, they seem to be a little more fortunate than other peoples of the world.

Neuroscientists are also studying a type of gene whose presence leads to increased production of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of calm. People with specific changes that cause the body to produce less enzyme needed to make anandamide are less able to withstand life’s adversities.

In 2015, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College, stated in a New York Times editorial: “All human beings are endowed with a set of genetic settings, selected without any logic or social justice involved. These genetic rules determine our propensity for anxiety, depression, and drug use.”

Friedman believes we need a “drug” that can cause increased production of anandamide. It would be handy for those who didn’t provide powerful genes. Communication with friends and loved ones makes us healthy and happy.

Some servants of science have already fixed their eyes on the future. James J. Hughes, sociologist, writer, and teacher at St. Hartford College Trinity, being an adherent of futurism, already now believes that the day is not far off when a person will be able to unravel the genetic code of critical neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Then the management of “happiness genes” will become possible (not 5-HTTLPR, so something else like that). In many ways, the emphasis is on developing nano- and micro technologies, which will be possible to “marry” robotics with pharmacology. Why not?

Imagine: “mood bots,” introduced into the body, start their way straight to some regions of the brain and set up our “assembly point” so that all events in life receive the proper emotional imprint and, as a result, bring satisfaction. With the development of nano-technologies, we can perform delicate and precise tuning of our mood.

James Huey

It seems that we are almost ready to believe the futurist because, in addition to writing and teaching, he is also the executive director of the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which means that he considers genetics issues comprehensively.

It can be concluded that a genetically renewed person of the future will be able to control his mood literally at the snap of his fingers and live in clover. “But not so fast,” sociologists and neuroscientists who study the phenomenon of happiness subdue our ardor.

Take our test and find out your temperament and personality type. After all, as it turned out, the level of happiness depends on genetics!

Happiness in seconds — small, sharp

The fact that scientists could approach the study of some new biological essence of man and the need to find a particular drug to control it cannot guarantee our descendants a happy and enjoyable life. “Man is not just a perfect machine, all the secrets of which have not yet been solved,” the researchers state. “Years of hard scientific work speak of concrete actions necessary for a long and happy life.”

The fragility of the term “happiness” has always caused many problems for those who decided to study this emotional phenomenon closely. Therefore, many researchers are unanimous in their opinion: happiness is a state that can be described as “subjective well-being.” Ed Diener of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia was among the first to use this definition in the 1980s.

In recent years, more and more bright minds are beginning to doubt the validity of the scientific approach based on subjective impressions of subjects. For example, suppose you ask to describe this feeling of a teenager, an adult, and a child. You will understand that it can depend on different aspects of life: a promotion, a summer vacation, or a Christmas tree in kindergarten.

For over a decade, the idea that happiness can be conditionally divided into two types has appeared more often: hedonistic and eudemonistic (the natural desire of a person to be happy). Aristotle spoke about the second long ago: “Happiness is the meaning and ultimate goal of life.”

It is the form of happiness in which you look at life from the point of view of pleasure from the very process of being: days go by one after another, and each is unique and good.

Yes, soon, advanced medical technologies may allow a short time to completely block the feeling of fear and instantly recreate a feeling of happiness. However, with happiness, technically, things are more complicated.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness, believes people can increase hedonic happiness by default. They have done quite well in this, even without the “mood bots” that James talks about. Huey of Hartford College.

In 2004, Gilbert demonstrated his idea at a TED conference through two side-by-side images. From the one on the left, a man with a lottery ticket was looking at the viewer. According to the idea, he just won nearly $315,000. The second illustration also showed a man in a wheelchair.

“I urge you to think for a moment about both possible outcomes in life,” Daniel addresses the audience, "imagine yourself in the place of each of the men in the pictures and tell me which fate you would prefer. In terms of happiness, both situations are equivalent: after a year from when one man was in a wheelchair and the other won the lottery, their level of satisfaction with life will be relatively the same.

Research results show that virtual communication can help fight depression and loneliness and enhance the positive effect of the social support received.

So why do we think the people in the pictures are not equally happy? The reason for this, according to Gilbert, is a phenomenon that he called erroneous influence. In other words, the tendency of people to overestimate the favorable properties of events that have not yet taken place. The researcher notes that this is becoming a trend, although many phenomena in life are inherently temporary and cannot affect its quality as a whole. Judge yourself: what can happen globally if you don’t pass the exam the first time or part with another passion? That’s right, nothing critical: the sun is still shining, the girls are still beautiful in the spring, and there is still a whole life ahead.

Nevertheless, something should and can influence the feeling of happiness. Gilbert does not hesitate to answer this question: “Often, the state of happiness in us is caused by values ​​that have been tested by time. I’m willing to bet that in 2045 people will still be just as happy if their children can succeed and fill their lives with love and care for loved ones.

“These are the foundations on which the state of happiness is based,” the researcher continues his thought. “They have been formed for thousands of years, but to this day, they do not lose their relevance. Man is still the most social animal on Earth, so we should make every possible effort to strengthen relationships with family and friends. The secret of happiness is simple and obvious, but many refuse to understand it.

The answer sounds simple: people are looking for a mystery where there is none. They have heard all these tips from a grandmother or psychotherapist. Now they would like to hear scientists’ secrets of a happy life. There is no mystery.

A lifelong study, the “winner’s list” and the secret to happiness 

Perhaps the most obvious confirmation of the idea of ​​​​the benefits of human relations is our parents, who not today or tomorrow will turn from dad and mom into grandfather and grandmother. A group also asked this idea of scientists from Boston, whose members decided to test several patterns on themselves, starting one of the most comprehensive studies ever known to the world. The project was initially called the Master Study on Social Adjustment and was later renamed the Harvard Study on Adult Development.

The work began with a series of scientific experiments and interviews with a group of college graduates from 1939–1941. Each graduate was selected to participate in the study in the most careful way. By the way, among them were John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, editor-in-chief of the Washington Post from 1972 to 1974.

The primary goal of the experiment was to follow a group of potentially successful men for one to two decades. More than 75 years have passed since the beginning of the study, while 30 of the 268 people involved are still alive.

In 1967, the study's results were combined with the results of other scientific work on a similar topic: Sheldon Glueck, a professor of law and criminology at Harvard University, observed 456 children from low-income but well-off families living in downtown Boston in the early 40s. Eighty people from among the subjects are in good health to this day. Those who did not make it to this day lived, on average, nine years less than the participants in the 1938 Boston experiment.

In 2009, writer Joshua Wolf Shenk asked George Vaillant, a former head of the Boston study, what he thought was the most critical discovery in his work. “The only thing that matters in life is relationships with other people,” George replied.

After Schenk’s article, Veilent seemed to be attacked by skeptics worldwide. The researcher’s response to the flurry of criticism was the “list of the winner.” This document included ten accomplishments in a man’s life (aged 60 to 80 years), the implementation of which can be regarded by others as an apparent success. This “hit parade” included:

  • Achievement by the participant of a certain level of income by the time of his entry into the final part of the study;
  • presence in the American biographical directory Marquis Who’s Who; successful career and happiness in marriage (read A successful career is not for me);
  • mental and physical health;

Sufficient social activity (in addition to communication with family members).

The constituents of each above category in Veilent’s list seem related. According to the writer himself, only four points have a close relationship with success in life and lie in the field of human relations.

Vaillant once again confirmed that the ability to have close relationships with other people determines success in most aspects of our lives.

However, to the writer, who published his research in a book called The Triumph of Experience in 2012, the term “happiness” does not seem so successful. “It would be nice to exclude it from the vocabulary completely,” Vaillant explains his thought. — By and large, happiness is just a manifestation of hedonism, a person’s desire to live life for pleasure. For example, I will be fine if I eat a hefty burger washed down with beer. At the same time, we cannot correlate this action with well-being in life. The secret of happiness lies in the positive emotions we receive. The source of the most valuable emotions for a person is love.

Vaillant admits: “Hearing this in the 60s and 70s, I would have laughed, no more. But gradually, my work allowed me to find more and more evidence that warm relationships with other people are the basis for happiness.

About health, the impact of technology, and loneliness on the Web

Robert Waldinger, a psychotherapist at Harvard Medical School who is currently directing a study begun by university staff in 1938, points out that more than material wealth or happiness per se is critical to fulfilling relationships. Without good physical health, alas, I can not do it.

“One main takeaway from all of this is that the quality of relationships is far more important to health than we might have thought. And we are talking not only about the mental but also about the physical condition of people. Being happily married at age 50 is far more important in terms of longevity than keeping your cholesterol levels in check. Ultimately, those focused only on achieving success lack the warm feelings and emotions from communicating with family and friends. People need this.”

However, the development of personal relationships can affect not only a person’s health but also the structure of his brain.

Socially isolated people are more likely to get sick and suffer from memory and thinking disorders, and their brains are less productive, as evidenced by the results of our study.

Robert Waldinger

According to Waldinger, passionate people are happier than others. They can raise children, care for the garden, and run a family business. If you are serious about business, faithful like-minded people are next to you.

Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Yale University and co-author of fundamental work in personality psychology based on the study of twins, believes that the probability that a person’s life was successful due to the “happiness gene” is only 33%. At the same time, Christakis is convinced that the main component of well-being is sociality, not the modern world’s technological advantages.

Christakis studies the phenomenon of social networks and argues that genes such as 5-HTTLPR have less effect on happiness than a person’s subjective feelings. The latter, on the contrary, transform the functions of the nervous system, changing our behavior and forcing us to communicate and find friends of different characters — cheerful, calm, and sad.

People of science have devoted decades to researching the phenomenon of happiness and the importance of human relationships and have come to a very topical issue. We are living in the era of the heyday of network technologies. The presence of people in social networks and the time they collectively spend on the Internet has steadily increased every year. George Weilent is unequivocal in his judgments on this matter: “Technology makes our thinking superficial, alien to the heart’s voice. It’s not even an endless pursuit of a new iPhone, which is outdated every time, and you have to buy yourself another, newer and more powerful — in a global sense, it does not matter. Modern gadgets do not seem to let you out of your head, no matter how strange it may sound: my daughter seriously believes that writing messages to friends is much more convenient than calling, not to mention live communication. It is unlikely that this habit will pay off for people a hundredfold in 2050.” Read How to find your calling.

The hopelessness of the new world, in which, sitting at the same table, people do not take their eyes off their mobiles, emanates from the words of Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “Relationships between people are complex and spontaneous, taking a considerable amount of mental strength. It would seem that technologies are designed to make the process of communication more convenient and faster, but it turns out that at the same time, we are talking less and less. And then, gradually, we get used to it. And after a short time, this completely ceases to disturb us.”

Yes, on the one hand, technology brings us closer. But at the same time, we are becoming increasingly alone.

Some early research on Internet use suggested that the networking age is pulling us inexorably into a bleak, lonely future. In 1998, Robert E. Kraut, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, conducted an experiment that was not encouraging. Families with children of senior school age participated in the study, and all subjects had the opportunity to use a computer with Internet access indefinitely. Observations of the experimental group revealed a pattern: the more time participants spent in the virtual space, the less they communicated live and the worse their mood became.

The problem of the harmful influence of modern technologies on human life is still relevant. A well-known study by a group of employees of the University of Utah Valley: 425 graduates who participated in the work noted a decline in mood and growing dissatisfaction with their own lives against the background of active use of Facebook.

However, the problem of the influence of virtual space on our lives worries not only people of science. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI warned the world in one of his addresses: “Virtual space cannot and should not replace people with real human communication.” Worth considering.

In recent years, there has been an increasing opinion that technology may not be so detrimental to human relationships. Recall Kraut’s study. What conclusions can we draw from it today? If in 1998, people during the experiment had (it was precisely a necessity) to communicate with people unfamiliar to them on the Web, today almost all people are present in social networks, virtual space, another world, if you like.

The reality is that most people today are used to communicating on the Web, even with those whom they have known for years and who live on the same street. It means the point is in the communication process, not its form. After all, what difference does it make if a person feels not so lonely anymore?

Yes, virtual relationships are also developing. Any form of communication brings us more joy and warmth if we communicate with our own. It’s a matter of trust.

We often use technology to communicate with people we know well. Relations from this only become more robust.

Robert Kraut

Kraut’s words are confirmed by Keith Hampton, a professor at Rutgers University. Exploring the influence of the Internet on relationships, he was convinced social networks and virtual space bring people together. I don’t think people are abandoning communication in favor of online interaction. Items are just a new form of contact that complements those they have long been accustomed.

Hampton’s research says that the more different means of communication we communicate, the stronger the relationship becomes. People who go beyond just talking on the phone and see each other regularly via email and social media unwittingly strengthen their bond.

“In this case,” Keith continues, “Facebook plays a very different role. If only a few decades ago, people searching for new opportunities left the provinces for large cities, often losing contact with friends and relatives, today we have not heard of such problems. Thanks to social networks, relationships live and develop, becoming long-term.”

Of course, social networks will not be enough to contain the onslaught of loneliness that threatens people. However, together with other forms of communication, virtual means of communication can support and diversify people’s relationships. Time and distance are no longer so critical.

Of course, Hampton is familiar with the opinions of Professor Turkle and the rest of his colleagues that technology is killing the forms of interaction we are used to. The professor, along with other researchers, studied four videotapes that were filmed over the past 30 years in public places. After analyzing the behavioral characteristics of 143,593 people, scientists concluded that being among a crowd, we always feel isolated. There is mainly group communication in public, despite the widespread use of mobile devices. And in places where a person is forced to be in relative loneliness, the contrary, a mobile phone in hand is not uncommon.

One way or another, technological means of communication are unlikely ever to be able to change human nature. Amy Zalman, director of the World Future Society, a scientific and educational organization, believes that relationships between people have always been complex and constantly changing. Even the language we communicate is one of the communication tools, along with other means: social networks, mobile phones, and others. Technology penetrates deeper and deeper into our lives, and another feature of the human character is triggered: we inevitably get used to their constant presence.

Futurist scientists believe that we will soon be able to communicate through the collective mind. Or maybe interact with each other through some virtual avatar entities in a separately created ideal world. Or, one day, someone will still be able to settle the human mind in an artificial body.

One way or another, the truth has been actual since the time of Aristotle: it is never too late to go out, talk to a person and make new friends. After all, happiness, as you know, you can not buy.

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