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

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.
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Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

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

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!"