The Happiest Countries In The World Have This Surprising Thing In Common

While everyone experiences happiness differently, new research shows that there is one thing the happiest countries in the world have in common — and it has to do with gene variants.

Researchers from several universities drew on a set of several data sources to reach this conclusion. First, the World Values Survey (administered three times between 2000 and 2014) provided information about levels of people reporting being "very happy" in each country. Second, a database maintained by population geneticist Kenneth K. Kidd of Yale University provided information about how frequently certain alleles (gene variants) show up in people from different places. The researchers, Michael Minkov of the Varna University of Management and Michael Bond of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, added in a few other factors to round things out, including climate data, disease data, and economic data. Put it all together, and what do you get?

The authors found a strong correlation between a nation's happiness and the presence of the A allele in the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) gene variant rs324420 in its citizens' genetic make-up. This allele helps prevent the chemical degradation of anandamide, a substance that enhances sensory pleasure and helps to reduce pain.

Since we already knew that happiness levels are significantly genetic, it's no real surprise that where genes vary, happiness varies, and that this can happen at the level of countries. Winners in this particular allele lottery include Ghana, Nigeria, Mexico, and Columbia. Less lucky were the people of Iraq, Jordan, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and Taiwan, who were lower in both the allele's presence and in "very happy" reports. Within Europe, northerners fared better than central and southern Europeans.

The researchers found that climate also impacted happiness, and that political and economic factors can cause certain historical fluctuations too, reconfirming that happiness isn't entirely genetic. And hopefully obviously, none of this means that people of some cultural origins can't or don't suffer from depression or even ordinary unhappiness. These genetic factors just explain wide-scale, high-level population trends. Neither does this mean that the political, social, economic, and environmental problems facing some countries are less important just because their citizens are "naturally" happier.

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