Genetics May Be Key To A Nation’s Level of Happiness


In 2013, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report listed Denmark as the country with the highest levels of happiness. Now, a team from the UK has found that the closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the higher that country’s level of happiness is.

By Marie Ellis |

The research, from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE), was led by Dr. Eugenio Proto and Prof. Andrew Oswald. Using data on 131 countries, the team compiled evidence that was consistent with the hypothesis that specific countries may have a genetic advantage when it comes to well-being.

This data included international surveys, such as the Gallup World Poll, World Value Survey and the European Quality of Life Surveys. After linking cross-national data on genetic distance and well-being, Dr. Proto says they observed some surprising results.

In detail, he says that “the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported well-being of that nation.”

And these results remained after the team adjusted for other influences, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), culture, religion, strength of the welfare state and geography.

Danish and Dutch have lowest percentage with short version of gene

The team also analyzed existing research that suggests a link between mental well-being and mutation of a gene that influences the reuptake of serotonin – a neurotransmitter linked to mood.

Happy woman cycling
Happy woman cycling

The team’s findings suggest a genetic advantage to happiness.

Dr. Proto explains that although the link is widely debated, they looked at research that suggests the long and short variants of this gene – known as 5-HTTLPR – are associated with different probabilities of clinical depression.

“The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction,” he explains.

Their research revealed that Denmark and the Netherlands – which both ranked in the top 5 in the United Nations’ report for happiness last year – have the lowest percentage of people with the short version of the gene.

But how does this effect hold up across generations and continents? To further investigate, the team used data on the reported well-being of Americans and then analyzed where their ancestors had come from.

“The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations,” says Prof. Oswald, “even after controlling for personal income and religion.”

‘Genetic markers, not GDP, will one day be used to measure prosperity’

He adds that their findings contradicted their original assumptions when they began the project and adds that “it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international well-being levels.”

Speaking with Medical News Today, Prof. Oswald said:

“Countries are gradually giving up the goal of high GDP and trying to find a better measure of human well-being. Science will help us to do that. I reckon that over the next few decades we will see biomarker measures come to be used in a systematic way, and genetic markers are in that spirit.”

“But of course, they don’t go up and down each year, in the way GDP does,” he added. “But blood pressureand heart rate and cortisol readings – they do fluctuate.”

He believes genetic markers will one day be used instead of GDP “as real measures of the emotional prosperity of a country” and added that their study “is just part of that gradual process towards a more sensible way of assessing the well-being of nations.”

The team adds, however, that more research in this area is needed.

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