Brits have happiness gene – did I read that correctly?

figure_standing_on_blank_note_text_10947Apparently we’re not such a bunch of stiff upper-lipped grumpy old men as we make out.

Researchers are actually suggesting that Britain comes high up the list of countries with a “happiness gene“.

That puts us alongside a diverse range of countries likeMexico, Ecuador, Ghana and Nigeria, as well as the ones you might expect such as Sweden and Denmark.

Gloomier countries include Arab and eastern Asian states such as Iraq, Egypt, South Korea and eastern european countries like Bulgaria and Romania.

Although the authors of the study say that happiness is due to a mutation that boosts the bliss molecule in the brain rather than a countries economic status or disease it’s hard not to think about the repressive regimes in the gloomy list – although corrupt African countries appear on the happy list.

Michael Minkov, professor of cross-cultural awareness at Varna University of Management in Bulgaria and Michael Bond at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, looked at data from 14 years of the World Values Survey and correlated them with known genetic variants.

One particular pattern of DNA seemed to explain the difference between people who were very happy and those less so.

It’s to do with a mutation called the A allele in the FAAH gene (no me neither) which determines how fast the body breaks down a brain chemical thought to play a part in pleasure and which carries signals between different parts of the brain.

So in countries like Mexico, Nigeria, and Ghana where 50% of the population described themselves as very happy, one-third had the mutation.

Although only 23% of Brits have the mutation (based on surveys of Americans with ancestral roots in Ireland and the rest of Europe so a bit suspect) nearly half of Brits say they are happy!

So is that a good thing? Well contrary to popular belief happy people don’t live longer. The idea that it they did was down to a statistical mistake and once the misery caused by illness was taken into account unhappy people lived just as long as happy people.

Sir Richard Peto, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford University, said “Does unhappiness or stress itself directly cause illness? No …. Will it be generally believed? No. This will get forgotten and all the Mickey Mouse studies that showed what people want to believe will continue to be believed.”

His team looked at the British Million Women Study which asked participants about their illnesses and how happy they felt. It followed them for 10 years during which time 48,000 of them died.

Lead researcher Bette Lieu from the University of New South Wales said “Illness makes you unhappy but unhappiness doesn’t make you ill. We found no direct effect of unhappiness or stress on mortality, even in a ten-year study of a million women.”

Looking at over half a million women who were in good or excellent health and rated themselves as happy they found they were just as likely to die as those who were miserable or stressed.

However Professor Andrew Steptoe of University College London, who has written several studies linking happiness and a sense of control to a longer life, said “Richard Peto seems to think that no one has ever thought of the cause-effect relationship between happiness and health which is of course absurd. It’s a major issue in the field and one that has been evaluated with much more sophisticate measures than were used in the Million Women study“.

So perhaps there’s still time for you to be more cheerful. A study from the LSE of 10,000 people over 50 years of age into what social activities made them happy found that going to church was better than charity work or doing sport. Not necessarily because of the spiritual element.

Volunteering didn’t lead to better mental health – which may be due to the stresses involved.

And joining a political organisation is definitely not good for your health and will make you unhappy.

So the pursuit of happiness is not an easy path to find despite all the self-help books and gurus out there offering to hep you.