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‘Happiness’ gene works for only for women, scientists find

Lia Grainger
Shine On
August 31, 2012

Scientists have identified a 'happiness gene,' and if you're a human of the female variety, you'll be thrilled to hear that this little genetic tidbit generates happiness exclusively for the ladies. Maybe this is science's way of making up for the whole agony-of-childbirth thing.

Researchers at the University of South Florida discovered a connection between the low expression of a gene called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) and self-reported happiness among women, reports PsychCentral. Unfortunately for the fellas, no such association was found among men.

The researchers involved were actually a little taken aback at their own findings, because low expression of this gene in men has been associated with 'bad' behaviours like alcoholism, aggressiveness and antisocial behaviour, and has even been called the "warrior gene." One theory on why it has such a different effect on women is that in men, MAOA is suppressed by testosterone, but as women have lower levels of this hormone, the MAOA can have its full rainbow-of-joy producing effect.

It all sounds good, but there a couple of rather obvious and thoroughly perplexing snags in this theory. One is that women have much higher reported rates of anxiety and depression than men. If we have this special happiness gene, why are we so sad and stressed out? Medical News Today reports that even despite suffering more mood disorders, women generally report higher levels of happiness than men, and no one really understands why.

[See also: How food can boost your mood]

This gene could answer that question, but there's also the possibility that women report happiness for reasons that have nothing to do with gene expression or actual joy, but rather because of socially constructed pressures to appear happy at all times. As Lindy West of Jezebel puts it, "Women are fairly sturdily conditioned to self-report happiness whether we're happy or not. And likewise, men are conditioned not to express their emotions at all."

Previous studies have shown that genetic factors are probably responsible for between 35% and 50% of the variations in people's happiness, so there's got to some kind of mix between nature and nurture happening here.

At the end of the day, is this study terribly useful in any way? Lead author Henian Chen seems to think that understanding the mechanisms of happiness is at least as important as understanding the mechanisms of mental disorders: knowing both may one day lead to better treatments. Says Chen, "I think the time is right for more genetic studies that focus on well-being and happiness. Certainly it could be argued that how well-being is enhanced deserves at least as much attention as how (mental) disorders arise; however, such knowledge remains limited."

Find out how more friends could be the key to better well-being in the video below.

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