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Happiness giants? NMSU professor's new book explores pharmacologically engineered emotions

The holidays are not always a happy time for everyone. But what if they could be? New Mexico State University professor Mark Walker's new book, "Happy-People-Pills For All," looks at the latest theories about what it means to be happy and envisions a future in which the rest of us might get the emotional boost that some people enjoy naturally.

NMSU philosophy professor Mark Walker's new book, 'Happy-People-Pills For All,' looks at what it means to be happy and how advanced pharmacological agents might mimic natural wellbeing. (Book cover: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing)
Waist up shot with hands outspread
NMSU philosophy professor Mark Walker, who has written a book called 'Happy-People-Pills For All,' will teach a course titled 'Should we want to be happy?' in the spring semester. (NMSU Photo by Minerva Baumann)

"It's funny when you ask people 'What is happiness?' often there's a kind of blank stare. What is happiness? It's not always clear what it is," said Walker, an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Walker's book explores the future of advanced pharamacological agents that can mimic the natural wellbeing of those who enjoy a happy state.

"My thesis in the book is that there's a large genetic component to happiness, almost as much as the genetic component for height," Walker said. "Part of the thesis of my book is that we should try to reverse engineer the happy giants amongst us and then put in pill form what they have through the genetic lottery."

Walker said research has shown happiness promotes achievement in areas of love, work and "higher endeavors" of humanity. What Walker means by "happy-people-pills" is not the kind of altered state of consciousness that currently available pharmaceuticals induce. Walker's research seeks a path that eventually might empower individuals to adjust their own mental state.

"What I would actually like to see is us have emotional control, rather than be a slave to whatever we are born with genetically. We would have a choice," said Walker. "We would have some say in how we emotionally cope rather than being mere victims of it."

"The technologies I look at mostly are advanced pharmacology and genetic engineering. If we could in succeeding generations tinker with genes, they wouldn't have to take pills, they would have genes built into their DNA."

Walker will be teaching a course at NMSU in the spring titled "Should we want to be happy?" The idea for the course came while he was conducting research for his book. The class is supported by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which seeks to encourage professors to create courses around these kinds of enduring questions.

Students will study writings by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson and Mill, as well as read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Then they will follow the teachings of Socrates and go out into the public and question random people about the nature of happiness.

The NEH grant ensures Walker will teach the course twice. If students are happy with it, the class may be added to the rotation of courses regularly offered through NMSU's philosophy department.

Walker teaches courses in ethics, social and political philosophy, informal logic, philosophy of science and the ethics of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. His primary research interest is in ethical issues arising out of emerging technologies.

In his book, he promotes the possibility that nanotechnology eventually might allow us to select our moods as we wish.

"Imagine your artistic hero is Edvard Munch. You're a person who is naturally happy but you think to actually make great art you need to be a depressive type," said Walker. "People might go on a few months 'unhappiness bender' for the sake of art, then return to their normal self afterward."

"Happy-People-Pills for All" will go on sale in the spring and is already listed with an online bookseller for pre-order.

Walker describes happiness giants as those being above six-foot-six in terms of their natural sense of wellbeing. He doesn't count himself among them.

"I think I'm average or slightly above average. I think I'm average physical height and average happiness height."