Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

First Installment-Generosity by Richard Powers

Generosity by Richard Powers focuses on Thassadit Amzwar, a refugee from Algeria. Despite having to flee her home country due to organized bloodbath and losing her father to the war and her mother to cancer, Thassadit maintains a positive outlook on her past, present, and future. This euphoria can be seen throughout every thing she does. For example, she can bring alive a story about an elderly woman hoisting her walker up the Grand Staircase of the Cultural Center at the rate of one step a minute (pg. 55). Due to this, one of her classmates gives her the nickname, “Miss Generosity” (pg. 58). Another one of her classmates illustrates a picture of Thassa with the caption, "Its like she's glowing. Like she knows something. Makes me want to be a refugee (pg. 101)". 

But does Thassa actually know something that the other characters do not know? Does she know the key to being alive? Or is her deep-seated happiness a result of her molecular foundation? This question brings up the debate on whether it is one’s genetic makeup or their environment that determines the person they become. As account for happiness, Powers states, “From 50 to 80 percent of the variation in people’s average happiness may be accounted for by genes. People display an affective set point in infancy that does not change much over a lifetime (pg. 99).” 

If our happiness is so highly dependent on genes, could we possibly alter our genome to become our own versions of Thassa? Thomas Kurton, a genetic specialist in Generosity, has been researching the happiness gene to potentially sell to parents to create happy children. When Kurton discovers Thassa, he also discovers the genome sequence that could be the key to permanent happiness. Every parent wants their child to be happy, but would an alteration of their genome achieve this goal?

As for Thassa’s professor, Russell Stone, he is on the complete other spectrum of happiness than his euphoric student. When seeking the response of his brother to Thassa’s mood, Robert tells his sibling, “Lets face facts. We’re depressives. It’s in the Stone gene pool. It wouldn’t have hung around for so many generations if it weren’t essential (pg. 86)."  If happiness is an ideal state of mind, why has it not been selected on to be more common? Powers states, “Back on the savannah, stress kept us alive. Natural selection shaped us for productive discontent, with glimmers of heavenly mirage to keep us going (pg. 87)." Dr. Melanie Greenberg continues this topic on Psychology Today. Research found that individuals with some adversity reported better mental health and wellbeing than individuals with high and almost no adversity.

With this evidence, is one's happiness a result of nurture rather than nature? Despite Power's vivid description of Thassa, a 99% gene based happy individual, the evidence supports that both nurture and nature contribute to our overall wellbeing. After forty years of research, social scientist concluded that happiness is a result of genes, events, and values

With this being said, happiness is not as simple as a nucleotide sequence mutation. As The New York Times describes, "Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."


  1. Terrific summary! Most of us are nowhere near Thassa-level genetic lottery winners, and yet almost all of us can improve our happiness quotients (or raise our "happiness setpoints," as the researchers say). The few Thassas among us, moreover, face a challenging social environment of envy and resentment that make genetically-rooted happiness harder to sustain. We all have to figure out how best to invite the butterfly to come and sit on our shoulders. That may require a little less Kurton-style engineering and a lot more emotional intelligence of the sort you can't replicate at the genetic level alone.

    But none of this, in my opinion, says we shouldn't continue to research the genetic as well as environmental components of eudaimonia. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so we'd better know more.

  2. I really enjoyed learning about Generosity! I think that it raises a lot of questions about what happiness means to us and how important it is. I have to say that I am pretty happy with not being happy all the time. I think it would be exhausting and I am not so sure I would want to be around someone who is happy all of the time either. I think there is a lot of balancing in your emotions to be mentally healthy.