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Happiness checklist

4 Oct

image002Last week on the Radio 4 programme  You and Yours Professor Andrew Oswald provided a useful check list of the factors (apart from sheer luck) which help to mould our happiness and mental well-being. Oswald is professor of economics at Warwick University, and he jointly produced a report on the genetics of happiness which I wrote about last February.

The contributory factors which he outlined on the radio are :  

  • Our economic circumstances
  • Our intimate relationships
  • Friendship networks
  • What we eat
  • How we exercise
  • How long our commute to work is
  • Our external environment – whether our area and our air are clean and safe
  • Age (most people reach a low point in their forties, and then begin to get happier)
  • The unemployment rate
  • How strong the welfare state is

Oswald added, naturally, that there’s almost certainly also a genetic component to our happiness, which I suppose covers the depression which some people are prone to. Some of the factors he mentioned, including the genetic element, are ones we can do little about, apart from learning to adapt to them. But others are worth addressing if we want to increase our chances of happiness.

Can money make you happy? Only up to a point, Oswald concluded. Materialism can in fact be dangerous, he said, to the extent that we tend to compare our lives with those of other people, and this can make us unhappy if we feel we’re not as well off as others. This is the main reason why he thinks levels of happiness here and in the US have not changed much since the 1990s (or 1970s in the case of the US) when statistics first began to be kept. Though both countries are nowadays richer, mass media mean that both here and across the Atlantic we have an ever increasing ability to compare how we’re doing with others – to look over our shoulders all the time instead of staying inside our own skins. And this can make us discontented.

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Genetics and happiness

11 Feb

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           Daniel Kahneman’s comment that a propensity for happiness is in part genetically determined came as a surprise to me (see this blog, October 9th 2013). Many of us are deeply disturbed by the notion of genetic determinism, with its abhorrent whiff of eugenics and racial stereotyping. But if our physical make-up really does influence our behaviour and responses – and who could deny that on some levels this has to be true? – then maybe coming to terms with the idea is preferable to trying to ignore it.  I’ve recently read about studies suggesting that in some cases depression may be associated with decreases in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood; and that this area of vulnerability may be hereditary (see, for example, http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=12999&cn=5). If this is correct, then to me it makes absolute sense that the converse may be true, and our ability to experience happiness may also be to some extent genetic.

          Tentative support for this conclusion has been provided by research carried out by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald (photos above), published in July 2014 (‘National happiness and genetic distance, a cautious exploration’, CAGE Centre and Dept. of Economics, University of Warwick; available online at http://ftp.iza.org/dp8300.pdf). Their study took as its starting point one of the famous puzzles of social science: why do some rich nations such as Denmark consistently achieve high scores in the happiness tables, while others, like France and Italy, do quite badly? These rankings still hold good even when adjustments are made for socio-economic and cultural variables. In their search for possible explanations, Proto and Oswald have been examining the hypothesis that some nations have an in-built genetic advantage when it comes to happiness. Their findings, they stress, are provisional.

          Proto and Oswald employed three forms of evidence in their study. Firstly they used data on 131 countries derived from a number of international surveys, in order to compare ‘genetic distance’ and well-being.  “The results were surprising,” says Dr.Proto. “We found that the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation. Our research adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion, the strength of the welfare state, and geography.”

          The second form of evidence used by Proto and Oswald was research which points to an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene influencing the reuptake of serotonin. Dr.Proto comments, “We looked at existing research which suggests that the long and short variants of this gene are correlated with different probabilities of clinical depression, although this link is still highly debated. The short version has been associated with higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction. Intriguingly, among the 30 nations included in our study, it is Denmark and the Netherlands that appear to have the lowest percentage of people with this short version.” Basically, the closer you are to the long version of the gene prevalent in Denmark and the Netherlands, the more likely you are to report life satisfaction.

          Their third form of evidence addresses the question of whether the link between genetics and happiness also holds true across generations, continents and the Atlantic Ocean. Professor Oswald explains, “We used data on the reported wellbeing of Americans, and then looked at which part of the world their ancestors had come from. The evidence revealed that there is an unexplained positive correlation between the happiness today of some nations and the observed happiness of Americans whose ancestors came from these nations, even after controlling for personal income and religion.”  He adds, “This study has used three kinds of evidence and, contrary to our own assumptions when we began the project, it seems there are reasons to believe that genetic patterns may help researchers to understand international wellbeing levels.  More research in this area is now needed, and economists and social scientists may have to pay greater heed to the role of genetic variation across national populations.”

          Do these findings strike you as compelling, scary, or just plain ridiculous?  I tend to the first view, while accepting that there is still a long way to go on the research. I take heart from the belief that we may eventually come to understand some of the causes of unhappiness, both physical and cultural. Without understanding, we will never be able to tackle them. And the conclusions of Proto and Oswald should  certainly not be seen as threatening. Equality and social justice have never, in my opinion, been ideals that should apply only to those who are best equipped to fight for them. If people have a predisposition towards unhappiness, that shouldn’t lead us to dismiss them as hopeless cases. On the contrary, it should  make us even more determined to find ways of combating their misery and distress, whatever its causes.