People spend their lives trying to figure out the key to happiness, and with many economists attempting to measure well-being, even cities and nations increasingly compete over who has the "happiest" citizens.
Now a new study claims to have potentially solved a famous puzzle in social science: Why some nations are always so damn happy.
The secret? Be Danish. Or at least be not-so-distantly related to one.
Denmark consistently tops national happiness rankings, including this year’s United Nations World Happiness report. That report measured many factors that you’d think would go into making one nation, as a whole, happier than another: GDP, "having someone to count on," "perceived freedom to make life choices," and more. These are all things that Denmark, a rich, progressive country with generous social welfare and workplaces policies, has in spades.
But the new research, presented in a working paper from two economists at the University of Warwick’s Center for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, indicates there could be another factor at play that no individual, let alone a government, has control over: genetics.
They found that the closer a nation’s genetic makeup is to Denmark, the happier the country is.
That sounds pretty surprising, and indeed the authors, Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald, were quite surprised by their own results. They went into the work thinking a genetic link to be "implausible." But after finding three different lines of evidence that pointed to the role of genetics, they have reason to believe genetic patterns will help researchers understand variations in international well-being levels.
In one part of the work, they looked at international survey data from 131 countries and, after controlling variables including GDP, social welfare policies, geography, culture, and religion, they found that the "greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported well-being of that nation." In a second part of the work, they also looked at whether this relationship held true over generations and migrations by examining data on the reported well-being of the U.S. population. Even then, after controlling again for income and religion, people’s happiness levels in the U.S. were related to the happiness levels reported in counties that their ancestors came from.
Finally, they looked at the happiness gene so to speak.
The idea that happiness and genetics are linked is not unprecedented. Psychologists have long found that humans have a baseline level of happiness. People who win the lottery may be extra happy at first, but a year later, will have adjusted to their new-found wealth and have gone back to being about as happy or depressed as they were before their good fortune. The same with bad circumstances like, say, becoming paralyzed—people can be happy in almost any bad situation, they just need time to adjust.
But is there a gene at play? Existing research—that the authors note is hotly debated among scientists—shows that a gene that controls the body's re-uptake of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to human mood, can influence our happiness. The short variant of the gene has been correlated to lower life satisfaction, more neuroticism, and a higher probability of clinical depression.
What’s compelling to the Warwick researchers is that, among the 30 nations they studied, Denmark and the Netherlands have the lowest percentages of people with the short variant of this gene.
The authors are cautious about their results (the paper is titled "National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration"), and say more research is needed to understand the relationships they found.
Christian Kroll, a research fellow at Jacobs University in Germany whose work has focused on the sociology of happiness, says that the study presents "interesting and compelling evidence" on the role that genes play in determining people’s happiness. But he’s not throwing out everything else yet. "A wealth of studies has shown that happiness levels are also strongly influenced by psychological processes and people’s living conditions, both at the individual and the national level," he wrote in an email.
What’s the lesson in all of this? Maybe we should just all move to Copenhagen and have Danish babies.