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The Danish Happiness Gene?

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The Danish Happiness Gene?

New research by the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick suggests that some nationalities are more genetically inclined toward happiness.

The research shows that the closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark the happier that country is – thereby offering a solution to the famous puzzle of why Denmark, in particular, so regularly tops world happiness rankings.

The closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier is that country.

Although they emphasize that their results should be treated cautiously, Associate Professor Eugenio Proto and Professor Andrew Oswald conclude that certain nations may have a genetic advantage in psychological well-being. Their findings on this genetic link remained even when they took into account many other influences – such as income, culture, religion, and the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and generosity of the welfare state.

'The relationship between well-being and genetic distance is not due merely to inherent differences between continents, or to the obvious fact that, for example, African nations are poor and have different genetic characteristics than rich European countries,' the authors conclude.

The current well-being of nations is correlated with the reported well-being of Americans who have ancestors from that nation.

Proto and Oswald also found a link between the subjective well-being of individuals who were born in the US and the happiness levels in the family’s country of origin. To isolate the effect of genes, the researchers took into account possible other influences, such as religion, income, work status, age and gender.

‘The aim is to see whether the current well-being of nations is correlated with the reported well-being of Americans who have ancestors from that nation,’ Oswald said. ‘This evidence reveals that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of Country X and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from Country X.’

The authors themselves were surprised at the finding. They had not expected to find any influence on well-being stemming from genetic sources.

Denmark regularly reports the highest levels of happiness among rich nations, above the UK and the US. France and Italy report surprisingly low levels in international rankings.

‘Contrary to our own presumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international well-being levels,’ the authors say.

The research paper examines happiness levels across the world using data from 131 countries. Denmark and the Netherlands regularly head the league table of international life satisfaction. They routinely rank above the UK and the US and other high-GDP European countries such as France and Italy, which both are listed at surprisingly low levels in international rankings. Though part of the long-observed rankings can be attributed to GDP levels, the quality of government and certain welfare-state characteristics, the underlying pattern remains even after adjusting for these factors.

‘We uncovered patterns consistent with a genetic explanation, ’ Proto said. ‘However, we are aware that we cannot definitively rule out other explanations. Thus, these results must be treated with caution, and more research is warranted.’

About the authors

Eugenio Proto

Eugenio Proto is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and Research Associate at its Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). His research addresses issues in applied economic, behavioural economics, labour productivity and development.

Andrew Oswald

Andrew Oswald is a Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and Senior User Engagement Fellow at its Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). His pioneering research lies mainly at the border between economics and behavioural science, and includes the empirical study of human happiness.

Publication details

National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration is available here.

See more here.