April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
What is it that makes a woman happy? Is it diamonds and furs, chocolate and wine, or a good book? No, apparently it’s a gene.
A new study from the University of South Florida (USF), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), Columbia University and the New York Psychiatric Institute has found a gene that appears to make women happy, but it doesn’t work for men.
The research team said this might explain why women are often happier than men.
Reported in the online journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, the study finds that the low-expression form of the gene monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is associated with higher self-reported happiness in women, but no such association was found in men.
“This is the first happiness gene for women,” said lead author Henian Chen, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, USF College of Public Health.
“I was surprised by the result, because low expression of MAOA has been related to some negative outcomes like alcoholism, aggressiveness and antisocial behavior,” said Chen, who directs the Biostatistics Core at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine´s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. “It´s even called the warrior gene by some scientists, but, at least for women, our study points to a brighter side of this gene.”
Although women tend to experience higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders, they report greater overall life happiness than do men. The reasons for this are unclear, but Chen believes that the new findings might help explain the gender differences.
The MAOA gene regulates the activity of an enzyme that breaks down serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. These are the same chemicals that are targets of antidepressant drugs. The low-expression version of this gene promotes higher levels of monoamine, which allows greater amounts of the neurotransmitters to stay in the brain and boost mood.
The research team analyzed data from a population-based sample of 345 people — 193 women and 152 men — participating in Children in the Community study, which is a longitudinal mental health study. The participants’ DNA was analyzed for the MAOA gene variation and a widely used and validated scale scored their self-reported happiness.
The team controlled for various factors, from age range to income levels to education and found that women who had the low-expression form of the gene were significantly happier than those without. Women with no copies of the low-expression version scored lower on the happiness scale than those with only one copy, and those with two copies scored even higher.
A substantial number of the men were found to have the low-expression version of MAOA. However, they reported no more happiness than those without.
The research team thinks that the gender gap in happiness may be explained in part by the hormone testosterone, which is found in much smaller amounts in women than in men. They suggest that testosterone may cancel out the positive effects of MAOA on happiness in men.
The potential benefit of MAOA in boys could wane as testosterone levels rise with puberty, Chen said. “Maybe men are happier before adolescence because their testosterone levels are lower.”
More study 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 of human happiness.
Happiness is not determined by a single gene, but it is likely that a set of genes, along with life experiences, shape our individual happiness levels.
“I think the time is right for more genetic studies that focus on well-being and happiness,” said Chen. “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.”