Does nature, or nurture, determine how happy we are?
In a tantalizing but incomplete treatment, New England Research Institute executive producer Braun (Buzz, 1996) seeks a modern answer to this ancient question in the emerging sciences of neurophysiology and neuropharmacology. A "happy pill" that could banish sadness and depression might seem like a daydream, but could also be a nightmare: Writers have often worried that such a drug, like soma in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, might eradicate a fundamental part of what makes us human. The miracle mood drugs Braun describes here don't work that way, though. Instead, at their best, they can increase clarity of thought and help a person feel more alert and cheerful by elevating the "set point," or average of one's moods throughout the day, which is largely controlled by one's genes. According to Braun, this chemical readjustment helps the user develop a slightly unrealistic optimism, a condition that seems integral to mental health, without altogether ending unhappiness: Mild and short-lived blue moods and sad feelings, he maintains, have survival value because they signal problems that must be overcome in order for anyone to attain well-being.
Braun looks briefly into the components and adaptive role of depression, offers a quick glimpse into the profit-fueled process by which pharmaceutical companies develop drugs, and tells some horrifying stories of corruption in the drug industry. But he doesn't draw any adverse general conclusions about the pharmaceutical industry or its products, doesn't explore closely the relationship between drug companies and the medical profession, and doesn't even mention herbal or other alternatives to biochemical mood-enhancers.