2014-07-18

Co.Exist

Danish People Really Do Have The Secret To Happiness: It's In Their DNA

Denmark has high standards of living and great policies for its workers. But neither may be what makes the people there so happy. It might just be their genes.

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.

[Image: Denmark flag via Shutterstock]

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14 Comments

  • Martin Hardiman

    What a load of crap. Danish are alway angry, bitching about others and constantly trying to pull down others. Talk bad about each other and and always stressed.. Never say please or thank you (not everyone) and never say sorry... if you cross them ind the road or street its always never there fault, always the boss that is a idiot and always somebody else's fault... who the fuck wrote that crap !!!

  • Tsar Bombastic

    Your anecdotal experiences surely outweight a massive study like this. Your an arrogant a**hole no wonder danish didnt like you.

  • Magnus Kahr Jensen

    Take it from a Dane, don't move to Copenhagen .... We got a lot of much better places in denmark :)

  • Rohit Pyd

    That's great. Telling anyone that they are inherently happy, regardless of any factor, will surely give them a lot of hope in any situation. Now, I will tell everyone I meet that happiness is in their genes.

  • Kirk Horsted

    The term happy has often struck me as simplistic and subjective. When people ask me, "Are you happy?" I want to puke or give them a rant about the wonderful complexities of life that may not boil down to happy/sad.

    That said, I'm half Danish (late 1800s), have been there a few times, and always had a great (happy?) time and been moved by the people and culture.

    Til I next return, I revisit pics and words from the last sojourn there... http://makeyourbreakaway.com/2012/06/27/denmark-5-firsts-photos/

  • All single human being on this planet has the genes, but it takes hard work, positivity and optimism to wake up and really discover true happiness. Danes are not so special, maybe they just work too hard and struggle with stress and other illnesses which leads to finally discovering true happiness.

  • On the contrary, Denmark's wellfare programs are so good that some people just live off of government money and don't work at all. They ride their bikes everywhere, get excellent healthcare, mothers are given a long time of paid maternity leave (and fathers are given paid paternity leave), and students are given money to go to school. They're actually treated like human beings in that country!

  • sunchaser

    I lived in Norway for 18 years and the happiness I experienced came from being well treated as a human...excellent pay, weeks of vacation and sick leave, extraordinarily long maternity leave and universal health care. People don't own weapons and at the time I lived there not even the police carried guns.

    I felt valued and respected. That goes a long way to finding happiness.

  • John Mack

    I've always suspected genes were the secret to "happiness." All my relatives, extraverted and introverted, here and abroad, Irish in origin (but many out-married) are happy people, even despite hardships and tragedies. I have always been aware, and have been able to visualize, a place of peace and calm inside me. It's like the eye of a hurricane. I basically can go there and look up at the storm clouds and know I will be just fine. Being more spiritual or more virtuous or better off financially or more anything has nothing to do with it. I was not taught this. It has nothing to do with merit or effort on my part. It's just there.

    I've also noticed that some people just don't seem to be able to be happy. They may be good and virtuous and generous and kind but they project a certain misery or off-putting agitation.