According to a new study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, people who rate themselves as the happiest are more likely to share a certain gene. Researchers claim that this holds true for countries as far apart as Ghana and Colombia, yet to simmer a nation’s emotional state down to a single segment of our DNA seems highly simplistic, to say the least.
For the study, researchers employed data from the World Values Survey( WVS) collected between 2000 and 2014. The WVS is a global research project itself, looking into people values and beliefs, and how they change over period and in response to what. From this, they figured out the average percentage of people who reported to be very happy from countries around the world, and then looked at climatic data, prevalence of cancer, World Bank economic data, and population genetics. According to the researchers, they discovered a strong correlation between the happiness of a nation and the prevalence of a specific variant of the fatty acid amide hydrolase, or FAAH, gene.
This, they say, prevents the breakdown of a specific chemical, anandamide, known to enhance sensory pleasure while helping to reduce ache. Those countries that have populations with the highest proportion of the gene variant also report themselves to be the happiest. These countries are widely distributed around the world, from Ghana and Nigeria in Western africa, to Mexico and Colombia in Latin America, to Sweden in Northern Europe. At the other aim of the scale were Middle east countries such as Jordan and Iraq, and the East Asian nations of China and Thailand.
A graph showing the apparent relationship between the FAAH gene variant and happiness. Minkov and Harris Bond, 2016.
To attempt to boil down something so subjective and variable to a single gene is a vast oversimplification. Even attributes you might believe would be quite straightforward genetically speaking, such as height, are thought to be influenced by many different genes, so to suggest that something as complex as happiness might be down to one seems unlikely. There are many confounding factors that could be influencing whether or not a person in a certain country during a certaintime reports themselves as being happy or not.
Even the researchers themselves admit that there are quite a few limitations to the study. Even though those in Russia and Eastern Europe had a high prevalence of the gene within their population, their reported happiness was still very low.
They say that economic wealth, politics, and cancer did not significantly influence a nation’s happiness, yet then go on to state that politics and economics did cause fluctuations in how satisfied the countries were. They even use an example of how happiness in Rwanda has been steadily increasing since the 1994 genocide. Presumably that isnt to do with an increase in the FAAH gene within the population.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isnt even the first time that researchers have claimed to have found a happiness gene. An earlier study from 2011, however, puts it down to a different segment of one’s DNA, this time a gene called 5-HTT. If you have two copies of this, the researchers claimed, youre twice as likely to say youre very satisfied with your life.
As always, things are much more complex than they may seem.