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How Close Are You to Genetic Happiness?

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Did you know that the closer you live to the homeland of the world's most famous suicidal prince, the more likely it is that your genes -- and therefore you -- are happy?

Most scientists agree that genes are responsible for about half of our happiness level. Studies have identified a "happiness gene" (OXTR), a "happy hormone gene" (5-HTTLPR), a for-women-only happy gene (MAOA), genes that differentiate between a purposeful life and a shallower one, and a "happy hour gene" (Ste20 Family Kinase) that accounts for why your college buddy can drink you under the table while a few sips of Merlot bring you nothing but drowsiness and a hangover.

Now comes a study led by two University of Warwick professors that finds Denmark to be the locus of all human happiness. If you're a Swede or a Dutchman, your close "genetic distance" means you're Dane-ish adjacent, joy-wise. If you call Ghana or Madagascar home, you've probably gotten the short end of the DNA straw. The study also finds that the happiest Americans are those with Danish, Swedish and Dutch ancestry. (The researchers claim to have factored out such variables as wealth and cultural differences.)

My ex, who's descended from sturdy English/Irish stock, was happy. (Breaking news: She still is.) She slept well, ate when she was hungry and exercised when her body needed it. I had insomnia, ate gallons of chocolate chip ice cream and ran eight miles a day. She felt good when something good happened and bad when something bad happened. I felt anxious no matter what happened. She shared her dreams of verdant meadows and flowing rivers until I couldn't take it anymore. After a year or two, I stopped sharing my naked/unprepared for the final exam reruns.

We both had plenty to be thankful for, and she'd experienced far more real-world tragedy than I. I didn't want her to be neurotic, but it seemed unfair that she got to be so much happier.

In light of this study, my Russian ancestry convinces me more than ever that I possess the glass-half-empty gene -- a certainty that may be evidence I'm right. Sure, it's a bummer, but it's also a relief that my default state of mind isn't some kind of weakness.

Still, I wanted to find out more about the happy gene, so I turned to Facebook. There was a screwball thread that confused oxytocin with OxyContin, a powerful narcotic that makes people so happy that if it weren't also highly addictive, we could just put it in the water supply and forget the whole discussion.

There was a page called Happy Gene, which failed to increase my happiness because it carried the warning, "Happy only shares some information with everyone. If you know Happy, add her as a friend or send her a message." There's a page that connects to a The Happiness Gene, a site that doesn't quite live up to its name: today's home page offers "10 Tips to Happy Hair" -- not to be confused with pro basketball great Happy Hairston, who expressed happiness off-court with an appearance on the TV series Happy Days.

Of course, the effects of the happy gene are far from determinative. If you have the gene for green eyes, you will have green eyes. But the happiness gene is more malleable. Myriad factors -- a mother's nurturing, good sex, close friendships, therapy, exercise and meditation -- can improve your oxytocin levels and facilitate optimism and self-esteem.

I mentioned this to a Type-A friend whose basic feeling-state is a cocktail of dread mixed with self-laceration. He was too busy multi-tasking to give a considered reply, but managed to blurt, "No time for sex, meditation or exercise! Perhaps I can do all three at once."

If you're lucky enough to possess the happiness gene, chances are you're out having fun instead of reading this. If you're more of a wrong-side-of-the-bed type, keep in mind that one man's blues is another man's bliss. As one of my favorite Genes -- Pitney -- sang, "To you it may seem like misery but, for me, this is happy."

Before you seek emotional asylum in Copenhagen, think about how gloomy it must be to live among so many happy people.

(A portion of this blog appeared in September, 2011)