While it is notoriously difficult to capture happiness, there are undergoing research activities in finding out the secret ingredients to happiness.

In 2016, Prof Michael Harris Bond at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU)’s Department of Management and Marketing and Prof Michael Minkov at Varna University of Management in Bulgaria published a joint study in Springer's Journal of Happiness Studies. They set out to challenge the popular belief that happiness is simply a state of mind, with an unusual study investigating the link between genes and happiness.

A allele is the source of happiness?

To find out the happiness level of a specific nation, the two researchers made use of data from the World Values Survey conducted between 2000 and 2014. They compared the percentages of respondents who rated themselves as being ‘very happy’ in the survey to an allele frequency database kept by population geneticist Kenneth K. Kidd at Yale University.

Interestingly, they discovered countries whose populations had high prevalence of the A allele reported much higher baseline of happiness ratings. Conversely, countries having a low prevalence of the A allele were also found to be the least likely to rate themselves as ‘very happy’.

The A allele is a genetic variant that increases the synthesis of a naturally occurring endogenous brain cannabinoid called anandamide. Anandamide – derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss – is responsible for enhancing sensory pleasure and reducing pain sensation.

Hongkongers the least likely to rate themselves as ‘very happy’

According to the study, the happiest nations included Nigeria, Ghana, Mexico and Colombia, whose citizens consisted of mainly Amerindian or mixed Euro-American descent.

On the other hand, Hong Kong is one of the ‘least happy’ regions. Other countries that reported lower levels of happiness include the Arab nations such as Iraq and Jordan, as well as East Asian nations such as China and Thailand.

> Read more: Hong Kong's pursuit of happiness

For Hong Kong, the happiness level has been dropping in the recent years. Based on the Hong Kong Happiness Index Survey conducted by the Faculty of Business of Chu Hai College and Lingnan University conducted in 2016, the number has fallen to 67.6, the lowest in the last 10 years.

For Hong Kong, the happiness level has been dropping in the recent years.
For Hong Kong, the happiness level has been dropping in the recent years.

The city also took a further plunge to 75th place among 157 countries in the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations (UN). However, it seemed Hong Kong was still slightly happier than some other East Asian countries. While Hong Kong scored an average score of 5.458 for its happiness level, the East Asian countries in general only achieved an average of 5.288.

Nevertheless, the researchers pointed out having a higher prevalence of the A allele does not necessarily imply a higher level of happiness. They cited Russia and Estonia as examples, which both have relatively high prevalence of the A allele in the genes of citizens. Despite the high prevalence, unstable political environment and stagnant economic growth have led to an extremely low level of happiness for the two nations.

The healthier the happier?

A study published in the Journal of Happiness also showed that a disease that disrupts a person’s daily life is more likely to reduce happiness. Putting all other factors such as demographic and socioeconomic factors in a controlled environment, the research team discovered patients with prostate cancer whose daily functioning is not interrupted may be happier than patients with debilitating conditions such as urinary incontinence.

What about the inverse connection? Is it true that the healthier the happier?

> Read more: Extreme happiness can cause heart attacks, doctors say

In 2012, a review of over 200 studies found a link between positive psychological attributes, including optimism, happiness and life satisfaction to a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. The findings were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

“For physical health, it's not so much happiness per se, but this ability to regulate and have a sense of purpose and meaning,” said Laura Kubzansky, one of the authors of the review and professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard School of Public Health. People who were more optimistic were also found to be more likely to pick up healthy habits, as the habits were perceived as useful in achieving their goals. MIMS

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