04:31pm Sunday 15 December 2019

Genes play a key part in the recipe for a happy country

Professor Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University, has spent a lifetime investigating what makes people happy. His research has shown us that happy people are disproportionately the young and old (not middle-aged), rich, educated, married, in work, healthy exercise-takers, and slim – with diets high in fruit and vegetables.

As well as these lifestyle factors, the quality of government and institutions within a country, as well as how equal the people are within them, has been shown to have an effect.

Recently Professor Oswald has shown that genetics may also explain the happiness of Scandinavian countries. He compared 131 nations and found that the closer a nation was genetically to the Danes, the happier its people were. This was even when taking into account other influences including Gross Domestic Product (GDP), culture, religion and the strength of the welfare state and geography.

He looked closer at a specific gene known to regulate levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin – a lack of which is found in people with depression. Previous research has suggested that whether you inherit the long or the short form of this gene can affect how likely you are to become depressed. Those that inherit the short form of the gene report lower life satisfaction and display more neuroticism.

“Intriguingly, among the 30 nations we studied, Denmark and the Netherlands appeared to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version of the serotonin gene”, says Professor Oswald.

More evidence for a genetic link comes from the fact that, when Professor Oswald looked at the happiness of Americans whose ancestors had emigrated from other countries, he could find a direct correlation between the individual’s reported happiness, and the levels of happiness in the country their ancestors had come from.

“Our study revealed an unexplained correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations,” says Professor Oswald.

Other findings show that happy nations are rich, educated, democratic, trusting and have low-unemployment. Top of the class comes Denmark, the happiest nation on Earth with an average life satisfaction score of 7.69 out of 10. The Netherlands and Ireland also do well, with Great Britain and the US floundering further down, and France and Italy doing relatively poorly.

The reasons behind this are not fully understood. It is clear that GDP and a country’s wealth have a role, however, research has shown that as our country has become richer, happiness levels have remained flat. In other words, although the majority of people within western societies have become richer over time, we haven’t become any happier.

Professor Andrew Oswald will give a lecture on the theme of happiness around the world as part of the 2014 ESRC Festival of Social Science.

For further information contact:

ESRC Press Office


  1. Event: Happiness Around the World
    Location: Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
    Date: 4 November 2014, 12.00 – 14.00
  2. The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available at www.esrc.ac.uk/festival. You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary. www.esrc.ac.uk.

Share on:

MORE FROM Genetics and Birth Defects

Health news