Approaching happiness

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

We all know what happiness is. At least we know what it feels like to be happy. But the moment you begin to define it, things become complex. And trying to measure a feeling as ungraspable as happiness seems as far-fetched as weighing a poem. Yet understanding what sculpts high spirits is essential; as essential as understanding feelings at the other end of the scale - such as depression for instance. Over the years, scientists have demonstrated that there is undoubtedly a genetic component to happiness, as there is to depression. A gene discovered in the 1960s and known to be involved in antisocial behaviour has actually turned out to have its say in human happiness as well. Depending, that is, on how strongly the gene is expressed and an array of sociocultural, physiological and anatomical parameters. The gene is known as MAOA - for monoamine oxidase A - an enzyme that metabolizes neurotransmitters which each have their say in modulating our mood. And since MAOA is located on the X chromosome, it is argued that the enzyme influences happiness in women while, surprisingly, it has little incidence on men.

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