I like having my numbers straight. Back when I was neck-deep in positive psychology, one of the equations that frustrated me was the one that laid out where your happiness comes from. According to Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Happiness = Set Range (your inborn disposition) + Circumstances of Your Life + Voluntary Factors.
Seligman tells his readers that the circumstances (what kind of government you live under, if you’re hitched or not, etc.) only account for between 8 and 15 percent of your total happiness.
So, that leaves at least 85% of your happiness to be parcelled out among Just The Way You Are and Things You Can Do to Change Your Life. No word on which gets more play. His book—about the voluntary things you can do—suggests that the voluntary actions make a difference. But my own experience makes me think the set happiness point shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.
Also, I’m starting now to think that he didn’t offer the answers because there aren’t any.
I just read Identical Strangers, a memoir by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, who are twins who were separated in infancy and adopted into separate families. I finished it a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it.
One of the book’s threads that’s been walloping my head is the issue of identity. When Schein and Bernstein meet each other—at age 35—Bernstein, in particular, is wary. Like most of us, she has thought of herself as unique and special, and she fears that knowing that she has a twin, someone with her exact DNA, will undermine that. More than once, she worries that if her parents had adopted Schein, and Schein’s parents had adopted her, they would have been each other. She doesn’t frame it as such, but she’s hoping for something that’s not nature (DNA) and not nurture either.
I’m fascinated by this sort of stuff, and ever since I heard about the epigenome (kind of like gene switches that can turn a genetic propensity on or off) and the role of microbes (bacteria that live in humans and may interact with our mental and physical health more than we thought), I’ve been looking forward to the day when Research tells us that the specific answer.
Today is not that day yet.
In the meanwhile, reading Identical Twins, I kept thinking of my sister Erin, who’s two years younger than me. She’s in my first memory; I’ve been in her life the whole time. We’re not twins. (Obviously—pity the woman who gives birth to twins twenty-three months apart.) And I always thought that we had very different talents, personalities, even looks. But the older I get, the more similarities I notice. Maybe it’s getting out of the nurture environment we shared as kids (a fab one, Mom!); maybe it’s just getting older in general.
But I wonder sometimes about that epigenome that we may or may not share. I wonder if you wait long enough, life will transpire and a flipped switch will toss you and your sister in the same boat, at last.