Possible 'Happiness Gene' Is Strictly for the Ladies

Illustration for article titled Possible 'Happiness Gene' Is Strictly for the Ladies

"Happiness" isn't real—right? I mean, I know a lot of people, but I don't know a single "happy" person. There are moments of elation and periods of contentment and you can get to the point where the good consistently outweighs the bad, but "the bad" is still in there. Because life is complicated. Trying to nail down "happiness" seems like an exercise in futility (wait, what's bigger than exercise—an American Ninja Warrior of futility?), but science is giving it a shot nonetheless, because that's just the intrepid kind of bro science is. Researchers at the University of South Florida have uncovered a connection between low expression of a gene called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) and self-reported "happiness" among women. But not among men. Ha ha, suckers!!!


Now, everyone's a little perplexed, because low expression of MAOA (which regulates an enzyme that breaks down certain neurotransmitters) is usually associated with negative stuff like "alcoholism, aggressiveness and antisocial behavior." It's also been called the "warrior gene" (American NINJA Warrior!!!) because it increases one's propensity for gnawing a comically large turkey leg in a tent filled with one's child-brides and then killing a bunch of horsemen with a mace. Or something like that.

But anyway, in delicate ladies the gene seems to do quite the opposite.From PsychCentral:

After controlling for various factors, ranging from age and education to income, the researchers found that women with the low-expression type of MAOA were significantly happier than others.

Compared to women with no copies of the low-expression version of the MAOA gene, women with one copy scored higher on the happiness scale and those with two copies increased their score even more.

While a substantial number of men carried a copy of the "happy" version of the MAOA gene, they reported no more happiness than those without it.

Researchers believe the hormone testosterone, found in much smaller amounts in women than in men may cancel out the positive effect of MAOA on happiness in men.

Okay. So this is super interesting. But I have a lot of questions. First of all, I don't know what "happiness" MEANS. The people I can imagine saying, "Oh, I'm just so happy!" are the most miserable people in the world. You know who self-reports happiness all the time? Sad people trying to convince themselves that they're happy. Like, I'm probably the happiest I've ever been in my life right now (adult life, anyway—childhood was NONSTOP PARTY MOUNTAIN), and I still get totally bummed out like once a day. I mean, I presume the scale used in the study wasn't binary—Are you happy? Y/N/IDK—but it's still a terribly relative and subjective term. And it changes constantly. I'm happy today, but day before yesterday I was grumpy as fuck. But then I was happy for five minutes because I had an Otter Pop and it was awesome. But then I remembered that it's almost time to pay my September rent and I was bummed out again. And then there are types of happiness that are more like resignation. Like, well, I'll just be happy with this situation because I can't have what I really want. I'll just wear this t-shirt that says "[picture of cat] + [picture of book] = heaven" because cats and books are what I have.

What I'm saying is that "happiness" is VAGUE.

Second of all, I wonder how far we can trust self-reporting. 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. Obviously neither of those paradigms apply to all women and all men—I am complainy as shit!—but they're there in the underpinnings of our gray matter.

More from the study:

Chen emphasizes that more research is needed to identify which specific genes influence resilience and subjective well-being, especially since studies of twins estimate genetic factors account for 35 to 50 percent of the variance in human happiness.


35 to 50 percent!!! That's fascinating. But I'm not sure I quite understand what we do with all this. Obviously if you're depressed you can't go to the plastic surgeon and get a depressionectomy/low-expressing-MAOA-oplasty. So it's not a tool to solve problems so much as a tool to explain problems, which could be undeniably constructive for a lot of people. And, according to my rudimentary Google research, twice as many women take antidepressants as men—so it's not like women are generally "happier" anyhow. IF "HAPPINESS" EVEN COUNTS AS A THING. Which it doesn't. Anyway, science.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Robert Kneschke and Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock.


Um . . . I'm happy. Like, as a persistent state. And I know I'm happy, because I spent a great deal of my life medicated for depression, but not the past few years. I know the difference between "happy" and "not miserable," and I can honestly say I'm happy. Maybe I'm a freak?