Last year’s World Happiness Report from the United Nations ranked Denmark the happiest nation on Earth. Now, even though I’m a generally miserable individual, I’m genuinely happy for them. They live in a beautiful country with progressive social policies, are in tune with nature, and have a great selection of beers and pastries. Which begs the question, how could anyone be unhappy living in Denmark?
Well that’s exactly what a couple of researchers from the German economic research institute IZA decided to find out. Their recently published paper National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration, “…examines a famous puzzle in social science. Why some nations report such high happiness?” and “…document(s) a range of evidence consistent with the hypothesis that certain nations may have a genetic advantage in well-being.”
By looking at the qualitative data from the World Happiness Report the scientists were able to find a correlation between the gene for depression and the genetic constitution of the Danish people. In very simple terms, the Danish (and Dutch) people have a very stable variant of the gene for the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, Serotonin. This means they are more likely to produce ‘normal’ levels of Serotonin and as a result (on average across their population), be more content with their lot in life.
Unfortunately for the rest of us the hypothesis is: the greater differences in our genes when compared to the Danes, the more likely we are to have the gene variant that produces less Serotonin. As a result these people (on average across their population) are more likely to suffer from higher incidences of depression.
Now the researchers admit that this study needs a lot more investigation before we read too much into this story but it raises some very interesting questions on what happiness is and how we should pursue it.
For instance, we don’t know if the genetic variation that benefits the Danes is a mutation within their population that promotes serotonin or whether the non-Danes have a mutation that decreases serotonin. If human nature is anything to go by one might suggest the former is the more likely scenario and the Danes got lucky while the rest of us are all just naturally miserable. But what if we are normal and the Danes are just happy mutants? This is the big question that this research proposes but can’t answer. What is at the heart of happiness?
There might be something in the Danish genes, but evolutionary theory would also suggest there must also be something in the environment promoting this effect. It could be the climate, the proximity to the sea, or even just the traditional customs and mannerisms of the Danish people.
It is also impossible to rule out that all the good things in Denmark are merely the product of a well-adjusted population, and that in turn each generation simply reproduces another generation of happy, well adjusted people. It would therefore make sense that these genetically advantaged people create an idealistic culture, in which they feel a great deal of contentment. Although this is nothing but pure speculation, based on anecdotal evidence, it certainly has a nice fuzzy feel to it.
For everyone else it opens a Pandora’s box of questions. Does this mean the rest of us should be looking at ways to boost our Serotonin levels? Would it make less content populations happier and in the long run lead to better societies? Either way, its unlikely that popping a pill would fix the discontent that affects the lowest ranking European and American countries in the survey. It is also very unlikely that Serotonin promoting drugs would help boost happiness for those living in the developing nations of Africa.
That aside, the one thing we may be able to learn from this study is that a nation with a strong sense of community obligation and a positive attitude might make for a happier environment to live in. It also confirms that the source of happiness lies beyond the tangible realms of materialism or money. Strangely, but not unexpectedly the source of our individual happiness is inside all of us. It might be nothing more than a mental state of being, but we now know that the secret to it is likely hidden in our genes.