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July 19, 2014 10:12 PM   Subscribe

"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."
posted by Chocolate Pickle (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
My mother is half Danish, and I feel cheerfully drunk 25% of the time, so yeah, checks out.
posted by Dumsnill at 10:20 PM on July 19 [11 favorites]


I have brown hair and am uniformly miserable. So there we are.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:09 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


I am bonafide Danish and I am a miserable sod. Then again I have brown hair & eyes and used to get racist comments about this when I was growing up in smalltown Denmark, so you know..
posted by kariebookish at 11:27 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]


Nordic white people in "having an easier go of it" shocker.
posted by mirepoix at 11:54 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


I’ve always maintained that the reason why we Danes score consistently high on these things is that we have low expectations.

This is something our weather has primed us for. So, whenever the weather is nice, we rejoice (and go out and get skin cancer), and whenever it’s not so great (which would be most of the time), we contend ourselves and each other that it could be worse.

“It’s cold.”
“Yeah, but at least it’s not raining.”

“It’s raining.”
“Yeah, but at least it’s not windy.”

“It’s raining and storming.”
“Eh, that storm last year was much worse.” (The dread storm ‘Bodil’, which was worse).

“This winter is dark, cold, wet, and miserable.” (Seriously, our winters are the worst in Scandinavia).
“But in six months time, it’ll be light out 24/7!”
Etc.


Oh, and almost militant egalitarianism—that helps too.
posted by bouvin at 12:17 AM on July 20 [25 favorites]


Blonde-haired, red-bearded, blue-eyed damn near purebred Dane here (some kartoffeltysker - German potato farmers in Jylland - in the family from way, way back) and I can attest to having a unique ability to see cause for misery or pessimism in literally any situation.

(Not that a statistically meaningful trend is contradicted by one counter-example, of course.)

In a way this makes seems to make sense, but possibly not quite in the way the pullquote suggests - life is comparatively good in social-democratic Denmark in many ways, and no doubt much more so if you're not subject to racism. So less 'ethnic Danes are genetically predisposed to contentment' as it is 'the dominant and normative ethnic group in a welfare-heavy, comparatively low-inequality, rich country are generally very content'.

Interesting then, that the article actually addresses this (though I would love to know how they controlled for social and economic factors in something as subjective as contentment or happiness) and the points about the findings applying to the US population as well lend it worthiness, perhaps, of a closer look.

(Fun coincidence, I actually graduated from Warwick, and still live in the area! Double relevant to me! Oswald does an awful lot of research on happiness from an economics perspective, and I've always meant to read more of his stuff. Digging in to the source paper now. Thanks for the post!)
posted by Dysk at 12:21 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


‘the dominant and normative ethnic group in a welfare-heavy, comparatively low-inequality, rich country are generally very content’.

That is certainly part of it, but that goes for all the Nordic countries, yet Denmark finds itself on the top of the heap rather consistently. Something more must be going on.

Obligatory Scandinavia and the World link: Everything is Fine.
posted by bouvin at 1:03 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


The whole paper is linked in the article, but here it is for easy clickage. I'll be interested to see what our science mavens have to say about this. There are so many variables, though, that it seems daunting. What I'd like to ask smarter people than I is whether a "happy gene" (egregious shorthand!) can arise because of generations of folks who just happened to spring from a small, homogenous group of coincidentally "happy" progenitors and happiness breeds happiness genes, rather than the happy egg coming before the happy chicken (the progenitors were happy because the "[mutation of] length variation in the serotonin-transporter-gene-linked polymorphic region" already occurred)?

If any of that even makes sense.

Anecdotally (HEY, SCIENCE I CAN DO! WOO), I am definitely the optimistic, cheerful type, and three-quarters of my genetic material comes from very near Denmark (the light blue region on this map), but so is my husband, and he's a Greeky Greeker from Greekland.
posted by taz at 1:07 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Countries with the least genetic similarity to Denmark, including Ghana and Madagascar, are “particularly unhappy,” they write.

This jumped out at me, as I have a very cheerful Danish friend who lived for many years in Madagascar and loves Africa. She feels she has an African personality.
posted by maggiemaggie at 3:19 AM on July 20


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.

wait a second
posted by obliterati at 3:24 AM on July 20 [26 favorites]


It occurs to me that there is one aspect to the Danes that may explain our happiness: Our wonderful liquorice and our ability to appreciate it. Candy in other nations are sweet, bland, and dull, but our liquorice is a taste explosion with just the right (i.e., dangerously high) amount of salt and ammonium chloride. Vastly better than what you'll find in most places, and still better than the weak stuff you'll find in either the Netherlands, or the other Nordic countries.
posted by bouvin at 3:40 AM on July 20 [8 favorites]


I think Facebook just pushes HappyNews™ on their feeds, is all.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:51 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Liquorice eh? Sign me up.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:24 AM on July 20


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.

This is black box bio-bullshit. "The least genetic similarity to Denmark" is not a scientifically useful description. Genetic diversity generally is much higher in Africa, since that's where humans came from, and stayed for a huge part of our evolutionary history. That also means there's more genetic difference, on average, between any two people picked at random in Ghana, than everyone in the whole of Denmark. The comparison is meaningless.

It doesn't come as a surprise this was written by economists, who are often applauded for lying with statistics. It's the kind of untruth that lends itself to pernicious eugenic nonsense, so should be treated with wariness.
posted by iotic at 4:26 AM on July 20 [31 favorites]


I went there and asked for a cheese danish. They never heard of it.
posted by jonmc at 5:08 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


What you call a Danish is part of the Viennese pastry tradition, not the almost completely unrelated (and totally different) Danish pastry tradition.
posted by Dysk at 5:24 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


(one assumption the paper seems to make completely unexamined - that contentment is a good thing. God knows the smug self-satisfaction of many Danes can get on my nerves in a big way when trying to get things done when I visit)

Having read the actual paper, it's big on statistics and conjecture, comparatively low on justification and biology. I'm sure a geneticist could tear a lot of this apart.
posted by Dysk at 5:29 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Liquorice eh? Sign me up.

You may not say that after you have tasted it. Salted liquorice is an acquired taste that most don't feel compelled to acquire.

'the dominant and normative ethnic group in a welfare-heavy, comparatively low-inequality, rich country are generally very content'.

This sounds right to me, with the addition that Perhaps the less happy people left Denmark in one of the waves of migration over the past centuries, leaving behind the people able to see the brighter side of a situation.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:30 AM on July 20


iotic "This is black box bio-bullshit. "The least genetic similarity to Denmark" is not a scientifically useful description. Genetic diversity generally is much higher in Africa, since that's where humans came from, and stayed for a huge part of our evolutionary history. That also means there's more genetic difference, on average, between any two people picked at random in Ghana, than everyone in the whole of Denmark. The comparison is meaningless."
I believe you are factually correct but I am not sure that makes the researcher's conclusion incorrect--misspoken but not necessarily incorrect.. Genetic homogeneity increase as one moves away from Africa/Ethiopia therefore it is possible (possible) that greater homogeneity in the Danish pool could contain a greater genetic density of factors that increase feelings/experiences of happiness. I am not postulating this or in anyway dismissing sociocultural influences--just saying.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:52 AM on July 20


What you call a Danish is part of the Viennese pastry tradition

Wikipedia:
"The origin of the Danish pastry is ascribed by the Danish Confectioners, Bakers and Chocolatemakers Association, to a strike amongst bakery workers in Denmark in 1850. The strike forced the bakery owners to hire workers from abroad and among these several Austrian bakers, who brought along their own baking traditions and pastry recipes, hitherto unfamiliar in Denmark. The Austrian pastry of Plundergebäck, soon became popular in Denmark and after the labour disputes ended, Danish bakers adopted the Austrian recipes, but adjusted them to their own liking and traditions, by increasing the amount of egg and fat for example. This development resulted in what is now known as the Danish pastry.

One of the baking techniques and traditions the Austrian bakers brought with them, was the Viennese lamination technique. This was new to the Danes and hence the Danish name for Danish pastry became "Wienerbrød" (meaning bread from Vienna) and this name is still used in much of Northern Europe today. At that time, almost all baked goods were given exotic names in Denmark."
posted by iviken at 6:19 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


I agree with the people who point out that a wealthy country with a robust social safety net, minimal corruption, and overall social equality is going to produce happy citizens. I hate pop evo-psych and pop genetics that seem to say, "Well, it's in the genes, what can we do about it? *shrug* Why bother with social change and equal rights?" I, for one, think it would be better to explore ways that countries like Ghana and Madagascar could have happier citizens through things like a sturdy social safety net, gender equality, and other things that make for happier people.

Something about Denmark that amused me hugely when I read about it: Cockblocked by Redistribution; PUAs who go to Denmark don't find much success! Women living in a country with generous social supports, considerable gender equality, and no huge wealth gaps don't respond to PUA bullshit! PUA throws massive toddler tantrum when he finds this out!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:26 AM on July 20 [28 favorites]


I agree with the people who point out that a wealthy country with a robust social safety net, minimal corruption, and overall social equality is going to produce happy citizens.

Or possibly the other way round?
posted by alasdair at 6:33 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Do you suppose there is a causal component to the genisis of the 'quality' of research coming out of the evo psych researchers at UCL?
posted by srboisvert at 6:42 AM on July 20


I seem to remember in the eighties some Danish biker gang shooting an antitank rocket at another gang, which seems excessive even for biker gangs.
Maybe it's that the curve is flatter, with more population closer to the extremes.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:05 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


This is black box bio-bullshit.

The paper also demonstrates a correlation between the proportion of a country's population with a particular serotonin gene, and that Americans who report Danish ancestry are particularly happy.

Still pretty silly and I expect geneticists could rip it a new one, but it's not quite as moronic an example of economist's disease as I was expecting.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:33 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Rosie M. Banks, that review of the PUA-in-Denmark book is amazing. Made my morning.

I do think it's possible that Danes have a lower level of depression for biological reasons, just like some ethnic groups are more likely to have certain predispositions to other health problems. But it doesn't mean we have to go all biological determinism. I mean, does it have to be either/or?

Of course, I'm probably biased because I have a Danish surname. Though that side of the family (which came over to the US from Norway, not Denmark) has a truly staggering predisposition to alcoholism. That said, the ones who are not alcholics are pretty cheerful.
posted by lunasol at 7:42 AM on July 20


Is it really outrageous to suggest that genetics may play a role in behavior, including a predisposition to charitable situational analysis (e.g. happiness)? I can see how that sort of concept can be (and has been) abused to legitimize existing oppressive power structures, but the core concept seems, at least to me, entirely uncontroversial.* Your genetic makeup influences the way your brain works: film at 11.

* Unless you believe in fundamental mind-body dualism.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:26 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


iviken: The Austrian pastry of Plundergebäck, soon became popular in Denmark and after the labour disputes ended, Danish bakers adopted the Austrian recipes, but adjusted them to their own liking and traditions, by increasing the amount of egg and fat for example. This development resulted in what is now known as the Danish pastry.

What they call 'Danish pastries' here in the UK are certainly the un-adjusted-by-Danes Austrain pastries, and not akin to anything you can get in Denmark. For sure, Denmark has a pastry tradition influenced by Viennese bakers - but what we call Wienerbrød in Denmark is pretty different to what they call Danish pastries here.
posted by Dysk at 8:34 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


(Winerbrød in Denmark tends to be made with a yeast dough, for starters, rendering it somewhat bready, something that is decidedly untrue of 'Danish pastries')
posted by Dysk at 8:36 AM on July 20


You do realize I was kidding?
posted by jonmc at 9:11 AM on July 20


"Study finds that scientists are just as prone to confirmation bias as rest of population."
posted by ChuckRamone at 9:44 AM on July 20


I agree with the people who point out that a wealthy country with a robust social safety net, minimal corruption, and overall social equality is going to produce happy citizens.

But those conditions are shared among all the Nordic countries (and many other places besides, though the Nordic countries are close in culture, which may be a component), yet it is the Danes that seem to be at the top of these evaluations.

Until such time as the proper genes (that genes can affect behaviour should be completely uncontroversial, e.g., the work of Dmitri Belyaev) or wotnot have been identified, I shall stick to my climate and culinary based explanation.

Strong, salt liquorice and pickled herring: It’s the true taste of happiness, especially if it is miserable outside. Snaps strictly optional (not really).

...

How can I be the first one to find it funny that a co-author to a paper about genes is called Eugenio?
posted by bouvin at 10:17 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I have an Uncle named Eugenio.
posted by jonmc at 10:49 AM on July 20


Is it really outrageous to suggest that genetics may play a role in behavior, including a predisposition to charitable situational analysis (e.g. happiness)?

Nope. But it's another thing altogether to adequately demonstrate it. And once demonstrated, the link of a particular gene/protein to a particular nation is probably tenuous at best.
posted by iotic at 11:50 AM on July 20


iotic--no need for it to be a particular gene or protein any more than it would need to be one sociocultural variable. And probably no easier to prove/demonstrate. I think the best of science will continue to reinforce that it is "always" nature and nurture not "or".
posted by rmhsinc at 12:08 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


So not a single thing is rotten? Surely something is.
posted by fullerine at 1:25 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


When I was young, I was really blonde, and really happy. In my 20's my hair was getting darker, but my work and life had me outdoors so much it was sun bleached, I was pretty happy. In my 30's I moved to Colorado and got a strictly indoor job, and my hair got darker. My life outside work was very outdoors, but not enough to get me sun bleached, and I was quite depressed. In my 40's my hair started falling out, as will happen to a middle aged man, and while I'm not bald, my hair has thinned, and I'm much happier, and I even got married. While I have my moments of depression, they're short lived, and I can cognitively work my way through them. Next month I turn 50. I'll report back in 10 years to let you know how that goes, but I think there's something to this...
posted by Eekacat at 2:18 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Climate change a hoax, reports tentative study of noted fast-food mavens
posted by shakespeherian at 3:05 PM on July 20


If, as I read somewhere once, intelligent people are more likely to be depressed or have a negative outlook, doesn't this paper suggest a possible correlation between higher intelligence and greater genetic distance from the Danish?

Also, I didn't know economists were now dealing with genetic data. Is there anything they can't do?
posted by mariokrat at 4:16 PM on July 20


Modern 'economics' is many different things. Oswald generally deals in an economics which is closer to a quantitative sociology than a classic economics.
posted by Dysk at 4:38 PM on July 20


I don't find the idea terribly surprising. We know that happiness is one of the most heritable traits, and also very challenging to alter.
posted by smoke at 8:28 PM on July 20


I don't have anything substantial to add, but I found it important that all MeFi Danes comment on this thread.

Blåbærgrød.
posted by brokkr at 6:31 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Obviously they failed to account for hyggelig.
posted by bq at 8:45 PM on July 21


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