Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Happiness, Success and Genetics

The American Journal of Sociology has an interesting issue on "Exploring Genetics and Social Structure". This paper considers the influence of genes on happiness and success. Here is the abstract:

Although there is considerable evidence linking success—including wealth, marriage, and friendships—to happiness, this relationship might not reflect, as is often assumed, the effects of the proximate environment on well‐being. Such an interpretation is contravened by evidence that both happiness and the environment are influenced by genetic factors and family upbringing. Using the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, which includes a subsample of twins, this study evaluates the relationship between happiness and various features of success before and after eliminating the influence of endowments. The results suggest that many putative indicators of the environment are highly heritable and, indeed, that the same genes that affect the environment may affect happiness as well. Yet the results also suggest that the role of genetic endowments varies considerably across different features of success, suggesting complex patterns of selection, reinforcement, and causation among genes and the environment.

And a sample:

Despite this evidence, most sociologists continue to emphasize the proximate environment and to empirically unravel its many elements... Even among those interested in genetic influence, most focus on interpreting heritability appropriately, rather than examining the implications of heritability for theories of environmental influence (for an exception, see Guo and Stearns 2002). The former enterprise is laudable and informative, but the latter is more promising insofar as it allows sociology to speak to other disciplines in an emerging transdisciplinary dialogue.

In this study, I seek to reevaluate the relationship between success and happiness in light of endowments, and I do so with an eye toward sharpening sociology’s theoretical apparatus. I explore a variety of features of success, focusing on those features that have been most central to the discipline, including marital status, schooling, income, and occupational self‐direction. For leverage against endowments, I use data consisting of unrelated individuals, ordinary siblings, and identical twins.

....A more general point is that the serious consideration of genes hardly undermines the relevance of sociology and, indeed, might allow sociologists to address the kinds of action/structure questions that have long animated the discipline. To be sure, current research on social structure and personality has explored how individuals select themselves into environments in ways that promote or hinder their well‐being (see McLeod and Lively 2007). Yet, even when demonstrating the importance of selection, sociologists have generally shown little appreciation of the origins of this action or the strategy it reflects. Genes are useful in this regard in that they provide a mechanism for understanding how individuals respond to and shape their environment, and, as demonstrated here, investigating genes hardly obviates the importance of the environment. Among potential engines of action reflected in genes are personality, tolerance of risk, cognitive abilities, and time preferences (see Freese 2008).