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Happiness Gene in Women Uncovered

Update Date: Aug 29, 2012 08:11 AM EDT

Scientists at the University of South Florida (USF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute claimed to have found a gene that appears to make women happy. The gene seems to work only for women and the research may explain why women are happier than men, more often.

According to the researchers, the low activity form of the gene monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is associated with higher self-reported happiness in women.

"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, according to Medical Xpress. 

"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." 

In spite of higher rates of mood swings experienced by women, they tend to be happier than men overall in life and the reason for the same remains unexplained so far, Chen said. "This new finding may help us to explain the gender difference and provide more insight into the link between specific genes and human happiness," he said.

Apparently, MAOA gene is responsible for balancing the enzyme that breaks down serontin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which are the key factors behind happiness and the 'good' feeling that people experience. 

Lower expression of the MAOA gene contributes to higher levels of monoamine, which in turn lets larger amounts of neurotransmitters to stay in the brain and hence boost mood.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a population-based sample of 345 individuals - 193 women and 152 men who participated in a mental health study. They studied the DNA of the participants for MAOA gene variation and their self-reported happiness was scored with a scale. 

After taking various factors like age, education and income into consideration, it was found that women with the low-expression type of MAOA were significantly happier than others.

However, even though there were men who carried the 'happy' version of the MAOA gene, there was no excessive happiness reported by them in comparison to those without it.

Researchers speculate that this difference in the gene could perhaps be because of the presence of the hormone testosterone, which is excessive in men and found in much smaller amounts in women. It could be that testosterone cancels out the positive effect of MAOA on happiness in men. This also explains why men seem happier during adolescence, due to lower levels of testosterone, Chen Said.

Chen further said that happiness is not determined by a single gene and that there is perhaps a set of genes that shapes our happiness levels as we gain life experiences. 

"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," Chen added.

The findings appear online in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.

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