Imagine you could press a button and experience a boost in your subjective well-being, or happiness.

More realistically, what if you could take a pill that would improve your mood? Or genetically screen for “happier” genes? Mark Walker coined the term “bio-happiness” to describe the idea of directly manipulating the biological roots of happiness in order to increase it.

This possibility is simultaneously awesome and terrifying. Most people agree that all else equal, increasing happiness is a good thing. At the same time, images of a Brave New World-esque scenario come to mind.

The idea of bio-happiness is controversial. But science is making it more and more of a reality, and we must consider how we want to respond to it. Drugs such as SSRIs and MDMA are already well-known to increase happiness (albeit with unintended side-effects), and developments in science and technology will allow us to improve on these agents. Genetic screening already exists, and there isn’t much stopping us from screening for genes that would predict higher baselines of happiness.

Like it or not, bio-happiness is an issue we must deal with. And there are many people who do not like it. My first reaction was certainly negative, as I’m sure many of yours are. I’ve since come around to supporting the idea. In this article, I would like to explore in greater detail the ethical dilemma that bio-happiness entails, guided by Walker’s paper, “In Praise of Bio-Happiness”.

Overview

There are three main categories of criticisms of bio-happiness:

  1. Happiness is not of moral importance.
  2. Bio-happiness cannot actually increase happiness.
  3. Bio-happiness involves a sacrifice in other moral values.

Each of these criticisms will be addressed here. We will focus on the use of drugs, because it is easier to understand and other technologies may pose additional ethical issues. So the question becomes: is it morally acceptable for an adult to be permitted to use pharmacological means to improve their happiness, even if they have “normal” happiness levels already?

There are a number of difficulties in defining happiness, but for the purposes of this article we will define happiness as positive affect, or a good mood. Happiness has many more components of course, but the argument becomes far more complicated if we include things like finding meaning in the world or flow in our daily activities.

Objection 1: Happiness Is Not Morally Valuable

Most people agree that the world would be morally better if we were happier, holding all else equal. Utilitarians believe that happiness is the supreme moral value we should be concerned with, but they are not the only ethicists who consider happiness to be a moral value (consider Aristotle).

Of course with any subjective endeavor, there are ethicists who don’t consider happiness to have intrinsic moral significance. For example, perfectionists believe that we ought to cultivate positive mental and physical characteristics (such as knowledge or strength) as much as possible. Pursuing those characteristics is often detrimental to our happiness because we may have to sacrifice something that makes us happy in order to study or work out more often.

But if improvements in happiness could enhance these characteristics, it is still morally worthwhile to pursue. There is significant evidence that happier people tend to be more productive and healthier in a number of measures, so we will conclude that the pursuit of happiness is morally valuable in a wide range of ethical theories.

Objection 2: Bio-Happiness Cannot Actually Increase Our Happiness

There are both technical and conceptual obstacles to bio-happiness. First, we will discuss the technical roadblocks.

Is Bio-Happiness Technically Impossible?

Let’s take the common party drug MDMA as an example. While feelings of euphoria are typical in the MDMA experience, it varies from person to person. The effects are short lived, and the doses required to achieve a sustained boost in happiness are almost certainly harmful. Drugs such as MDMA suggest that bio-happiness may not be able to provide a real, long-term enhancement of happiness.

Traditional pleasures like food and sex are no longer enjoyable for a period of time once you’ve eaten enough food or had enough sex. However, electrical stimulation of the pleasure center in the brain has been shown to be rewarding, without decreasing marginal returns. This type of pleasure is not exactly the same as happiness, but it is encouraging that at least a significant component of happiness can be improved and sustained in the long-term.

Probably the most widely used technology for increasing happiness is a family of drugs called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), which have helped alleviate depression in many people. There is some evidence that normal individuals taking these antidepressants can feel “better than well”. The effect of these drugs is variable and they do cause side effects, so they are not a great option for bio-happiness yet either.

Current technologies for achieving bio-happiness are clearly limited, but research on this subject has only just begun. There is no reason to believe that with a better understanding of neurochemistry we can’t develop a drug that increases happiness in the long-term without significant side-effects.


Genetics have been shown to account for approximately half of a person’s level of happiness (with another 10% being environmental factors outside of our control, and 40% from factors that we can control). Just as there are depressed individuals who lost the genetic lottery, there are people on the other end of the spectrum who are almost unexplainably happy, called “hyperthymic” individuals. It won’t be straightforward, but research can help find the genes responsible for hyperthymia, and illuminate how these genes are expressed. Once that happens, we can develop pharmacological agents that mimic these effects.

The problems with all this research are similar to the problems of finding drugs to treat elusive diseases like Alzheimer’s. The good news is that many scientists are optimistic about creating drugs that can treat Alzheimer’s, so we can be similarly optimistic about finding drugs that can mimic the genetic effects that lead to hyperthymia.

Can Bio-Happiness Bring “True” Happiness?

Let’s assume we’ve developed a drug that mimics hyperthymia without serious physiological side-effects. Wouldn’t this drug only produce a “false” sense of happiness?

People want to experience happiness that originates from within themselves, not something that only exists because of a drug. Most people, at least in western cultures, believe that happiness is something that they must earn. If the positive feelings are from a drug, individuals may feel like their experience of the world is distorted or unreal.

Drugs affect the neurochemistry of our brains in order to achieve their effects (in this case, positive affect). But all of our experiences involve neurochemistry; were we to not have serotonin, dopamine, etc. in our brains, we would have no experience at all. Those who argue against bio-happiness consider the neurochemistry of peoples’ brains when not under the influence of drugs as “true” or their own, whereas the neurochemistry that occurs as a result of taking a pill is “false”, or not real.

But wouldn’t that mean that depressed people taking SSRIs never experience genuine happiness? That’s a pretty harsh judgment.

There is another layer to this argument, and Walker brings up the example of a sex change procedure to highlight it. If someone gets a sex change, there is a clear sense in which their new looks are not “genuine and true”. At the same time, the new looks are an expression of what the person believes is appropriate, and in that sense is more authentic.

Now we have two concepts here: natural vs. artificial and authentic vs. inauthentic. We could say the recipient of a sex change surgery has looks that are artificial and authentic. Similarly, someone who takes a hyperthymic pill might have happiness that is artificial and authentic, and it would allow them to be a more genuine version of who they want to be.

Walker concedes that artificially creating happiness will not lead to authentic happiness for all. Not everyone wants to move away from their genetic set-point. That being said, many people do. So even if bio-happiness technology creates an artificial happiness, there are cases where it would be authentic, and could still be considered “true” happiness.

Objection 3: The Costs Of Bio-Happiness Are Too Great

Even if bio-happiness is possible, it may have too high of a price in other respects to be worthwhile.

Will Bio-Happiness Distort Emotionally Appropriate Responses?

If a friend or family member is trying to cope with serious illness, it seems only natural and appropriate to feel worry or grief. Wouldn’t it be strange and even bad for someone to feel happy in response to a loved one’s illness?

Negative emotions are clearly appropriate in some circumstances. Critics claim that a world with bio-happiness will prevent such healthy emotional responses. The drug soma from Brave New World comes to mind here.

But there is no reason to believe that all pharmacological agents of bio-happiness will produce this one-dimensional response. In fact, current antidepressants seem to only cause emotional blunting in some patients, but not all. A drug could be developed that wouldn’t have this side effect.

In addition, there is no reason to believe that hyperthymic people don’t experience negative emotions. Research has shown that they do still experience sadness and negative moods, but less frequently. They also show more empathy, which is associated with increased social support, coping, and resilience. If we develop a drug that mimics hyperthymia, individuals taking it could still have completely normal or even richer emotional responses.

Emotions are very complex, and sometimes sad things can make us happy, or the emotions mix together completely. A hyperthymic individual might reflect on a period of their life and feel nostalgic, enjoying the happy memories while being sad that it has passed. Another person could look back on the same situation and experience only feelings of sadness that it couldn’t continue. Both are “normal” emotional responses, but don’t you think it would be better to have the more positive feelings?

Does Bio-Happiness Lead To A Loss Of Achievement?

Human flourishing consists of more than just feeling good, so couldn’t bio-happiness take away much of what is important in the good life?


Again, the book Brave New World comes to mind. After consuming soma, the people in that world experience huge increases in positive affect. However, relationships between people are shallow, anything resembling a sense of achievement dissolves, and nobody cares about anyone else. Doesn’t that world, well, suck?

Most people, if they had to choose one or the other, would take our current situation over the one from Brave New World. But there could also be a third choice. Perhaps we could increase both human flourishing and happiness at the same time.

It is generally regarded that high achievement causes an increase in happiness. But the relationship goes both ways; higher levels of happiness tend to result in higher levels of achievement. So if bio-happiness can lead to chronically increased happiness, it may also lead to greater achievement. We don’t have to sacrifice achievement to gain happiness; we can have more of both.

The Positive Side Of Bio-Happiness

While many of the criticisms of bio-happiness have been shown to be hollow, we have yet to show that bio-happiness is an especially good and worthwhile thing to devote resources to.

Justice

The most obvious argument in support of bio-happiness is that it would be cruel and unjust to prevent its use. If people want more happiness and achievement, bio-happiness can help.

Unfortunately, many people believe that the amount of positive affect that one experiences is deserved and fair already. They believe that an unhappy person is that way because of poor life choices, and thus they “earned” their unhappiness.

But what if an unhappy person was abused as a child and that contributed to their unhappiness? Most people would no longer think their level of happiness is fair, because it is due to factors that they had little to no control over.

Similarly, what if an unhappy person is that way in part due to genetic influence? People are not responsible for their own genetic makeup and can’t possibly be said to “deserve” any unhappiness caused by it.

But even if losers of the genetic lottery don’t deserve their unhappiness, that doesn’t imply that it is unfair. After all, nobody is morally responsible for a person receiving bad genes, so no one is to blame, right?

Losing the genetic lottery is not the injustice here. Preventing someone from compensating for it is. Would you tell someone who had below average or even normal intelligence that it is wrong or unfair for them to study for an exam?

Clearly, it is just and fair to allow people to take a hyperthymic pill if it existed.

Bio-Happiness As A Social Good

Bio-happiness doesn’t require balancing individual interests with those of society as a whole.

One could argue (I wouldn’t, but I digress) that if an individual’s interests clash with a greater social interest that it would be justified to intervene on behalf of the societal interest. For example, some people believe that vaccinations should be mandatory, because choosing to avoid the vaccine increases the risk of other people getting sick.

But bio-happiness doesn’t seem to present this sort of dilemma. Increasing happiness is a social good if happiness has universal moral value. Similarly, if achievement has moral worth, then increasing happiness can improve a social good in that regard as well. Finally, since happiness tends to promote pro-social behavior, increasing happiness may cause people to be more generous and empathic, reducing poverty and environmental damage. At the very least, people might just be nicer to each other in their day to day lives.

Conclusion

Bio-happiness is a promising goal to work towards. Many people are afraid of it, but prohibiting the use of bio-happiness would be unjust and misguided. Introducing Bio-happiness would cultivate a society full of people who are more satisfied with their lives, have stronger relationships with friends and family, are healthier, and accomplish more.

What do you think?