Got some Dane in your DNA? Do a happy dance

While global happiness research tends to focus on economic and sociological factors, one study says genes close to the makeup of Denmark's DNA up your chance at bliss.

legotown.jpg
A Lego version of a harbor in Denmark, home to Lego's headquarters. How could being from Lego's country of origin not make you happy?Nicolas Guyon/Flickr

Good news if your relatives celebrate Valdemar's Day and write slashes through their o's.

The closer a country finds itself to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier that country is likely to be, according to research from the University of Warwick in England, a country which, sadly, didn't even make the top 20 in last year's World Happiness Report.

Denmark, along with other Northern European countries, regularly tops the increasing number of world happiness rankings. But while most analysis focuses on factors such as wealth, social support, and political freedom, the Warwick researchers have another explanation: Danish DNA. They detail their findings in a working paper, National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration (PDF), which was just made public for the first time.

"The results were surprising," said Eugenio Proto, a professor of economics at the university who conducted the research with fellow economics professor Andrew Oswald. "We found that the greater a nation's genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported well-being of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences, including gross domestic product, culture, religion, and the strength of the welfare state and geography."

The researchers studied data on 131 countries from international surveys including the Gallup World Poll, which measures attitudes and behaviors worldwide; the World Values Survey, which similarly assesses global values and beliefs; and European Quality of Life Surveys, a survey of European citizens carried out every four years They then linked cross-national data on genetic distance and well-being.

"Notable countries in the data set include the high-well-being nations of Netherlands and Sweden... These nations, perhaps unsurprisingly given their geographical proximity, have the closest genetic similarity to Denmark," according to the research paper, which was just published by the German economic research institute IZA. "Particularly unhappy countries...include nations such as Ghana and Madagascar; these have the least genetic similarity to Denmark."

Gleeful genes?

In some of the more compelling evidence, the professors examined existing research suggesting an association between mental well-being and a mutation of a gene, 5-HTT, that influences the reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood and gets a boost from antidepressants in the SSRI class such as Prozac and Zoloft.

"Intriguingly, among the developed nations in our data, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with [5-HTT]," the research paper says, cautioning that "our results should be treated as exploratory, because when dealing with the countries for which we have 5-HTT data, there is a shortage of statistical power."

Author Eric Weiner has studied global happiness extensively, but a shortage of statistical power isn't the only thing that makes him skeptical of the Danish-DNA theory.

For his book " Geography of Bliss," Weiner spent three years traveling the globe in search of the happiest places and what we can learn from them. During that time, "To be honest, I found very little evidence linking happiness and genetics. If anything, I found the opposite to be true," the former NPR foreign correspondent told Crave. "For instance, second- and third-generation immigrants tend to have a happiness level equal to their new country's, not the old. That would seem to suggest that happiness is influenced more by culture than genes."

When it comes to Denmark, specifically, Weiner thinks culture holds the biggest sway over the state of citizens' spirits. He cites a recent Eurobarometer survey showing that Danes have low expectations -- "the lowest in Europe, in fact," he said. "They don't expect much from the future and therefore are pleasantly surprised when something good happens. High expectations, in fact, are an impediment to happiness. They put too much pressure on the future to deliver the goods, so to speak."

The Warwick researchers themselves say their findings should be viewed with caution.

"Of course research is always ongoing," Oswald told Crave, "and we have plans -- that we are not currently making public -- for the next step." Something to note before you try to borrow some joy by speed-reading Hans Christian Andersen or playing a Danish waltz.

Update, 4:40 p.m. PT: Comments from author Eric Weiner added.

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About the author

Leslie Katz, Crave's senior editor, heads up a team that covers the most crushworthy (and wackiest) tech, science, and culture around. As a co-host of the now-retired CNET News Daily Podcast, she was sometimes known to channel Terry Gross and still uses her trained "podcast voice" to bully the speech recognition software on automated customer service lines. E-mail Leslie.

 

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