Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

copenhagen-denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

• July 18, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.

Quick: What descriptive word would you put in front of “Dane”? If you said “melancholy,” congratulations—your knowledge of Western literature extends at least as far as Hamlet.

But new research suggests Shakespeare’s brooding prince was hardly representative of his people.

The residents of Denmark regularly report the highest levels of life satisfaction in the world. Economists Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick cautiously submit that there is a genetic component to this high level of contentment.

“The greater a nation’s genetic difference from Denmark, the lower is the reported well-being of that nation (that is, the greater their population’s level of struggling).”

“We find that the closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark … the happier is that country,” they write in a working paper.

The theory that our baseline level of happiness is at least partially determined by our genetic make-up is not brand new. In a paper published last year, researchers from University College London estimated that genes may account for as much as one-third of overall variation in life satisfaction.

Exploring this notion further, Oswald and Proto compared national levels of well-being (as determined by various surveys, including the Gallup World Poll) and the genetic make-up of each country.

They found that “the greater a nation’s genetic difference from Denmark, the lower is the reported well-being of that nation (that is, the greater their population’s level of struggling).” Countries with the least genetic similarity to Denmark, including Ghana and Madagascar, are “particularly unhappy,” they write.

What’s more, they report this correlation remains robust after taking into consideration an array of factors, including a nation’s economic vitality (as measured by its gross domestic product), the generosity of its welfare benefits, and a range of cultural and religious variables.

“The relationship between well-being and genetic distance is not due merely to inherent differences between continents, nor to the obvious fact that, for example, African nations are poor (compared to European ones),” Proto and Oswald write.

Further evidence that genetics play a key role in happiness comes from another study they conducted, in which they compared the self-reported happiness of residents in 29 nations with that of Americans who trace their ancestries to those countries.

They found “an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of Country X, and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors come from Country X.” This finding, they note, is “consistent with the existence of an underlying genetic component in international well-being patterns.”

So, when it comes to being happy, it seems that some people—particularly those of Danish ancestry—have a leg up on the rest of us. It’s hard not to feel a little jealous. As Shakespeare put it: “O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.