Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?


Being miserable might be in your genes

sitting_on_curb_holding_sign_12927Brits, Americans and the French are born to be miserable according to UK research.

People from Britain and America have apparently have a short-form version of a gene that regulates levels of serotonin, the chemical linked to happiness and French people have the shortest of all. No wonder we think of the French as Les Miserables!

The Danes however, who often top the league of happy countries, and the Netherlands have the lowest proportion of people with the short-form version. This means that Americans with ancestors from Denmark would also be happier.

Professor Andrew Oswald’s team at Warwick University looked at 131 different countries. Genetics turned out to be one of the most important factors in determining happiness.

Happiness league tables often take into account job satisfaction, health, wealth, education and political stability. Have a look at the OECD Happiness Index and decide for yourself.


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Football & happiness – a game of 2 halves 

 brazil_flag_with_soccer_ball_1600_wht_2747Now the 2014 World Cup is underway again there will be much speculation about the impact it will have on the host country.

After the last one there was quite a bit of research which showed that such events did have positive outcomes.

We’ll have to wait and see if the same thing happens this time round in Brazil.

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Fans celebrating the upcoming 2010 FIFA World ...

Image via Wikipedia

Football can make people happier. Two economists tried but failed to prove that football was good for a country’s economy. But when they looked at national pride and happiness they got better results.

They looked for changes in life satisfaction in 12 European countries over 30 years up to 2004, and especially looked at how people felt following Olympic, World Cup, and European Cup competitions.

They were interested in whether or not teams doing better than expected had a positive effect on people from that country and whether countries hosting the competitions benefitted.

There was no evidence that performing better than expected had any real effect on people’s life satisfaction scores. Nor did planning to host such an event make people any happier.

But there was strong evidence that actually hosting an event did make people happier in that country. In fact it made people 3 times happier than if they had gained a higher level education, 1.5 times the happiness boost associated with getting married, and nearly large enough a difference in happiness to offset the misery of a divorce!

Sadly 1 year later the happiness effect had worn off. Whereas being married keeps you happier longer.

So perhaps the secret is to live in a country hosting such an event to get the short-term happiness boost and get married in the following 12 months for a longer-lasting effect!

FYI Married people are happier than single people (of course it could be that happy people get married more easily). And the 30% improvement in spousal happiness even counteracts all the negative affects of unemployment.

Greater Manchester Police reported an increase in domestic abuse the day England were knocked out of the World Cup. It was the largest number reported since New Year’s Eve and 16% up on the same time the previous year.

Updated 10 July 2010: The World Cup seems to have had a unifying effect on the rainbow nation, perhaps even more than the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And if the government figures are correct South Africa will break even on its investment in airports, motorways, and high speed rail links.

There has been a show of unity, pride and patriotism and the crime rates have been low despite South Africa’s reputation as one of the world’s capitals in murder and rape.

So maybe the economists have got it right. Apparently psychiatrists are concerned that South Africans will experience a post event depression when the World Cup finishes. Let’s hope it’s 1-0 to the economists.

And a 40 year research project in America reported in New Scientist (10 July 2010) shows that when local college football teams did well in the 2 weeks before an election the sitting party won more votes than when the team lost. So if you want to stay in power make sure your local team plays well!

Updated 20 September 2010: Despite concern that South African policemen are too fat to chase criminals – the police minister said they shouldn’t be “massaging beer bellies” – it seems that the get-fit boot camps put in place for the World Cup may have paid off. (This in a country, similar to USA and Germany, where 60% of the population are overweight or obese).

Despite SA having the highest murder rates in the world, outside war zones or countries with drug cartels like Mexico and Columbia, the World Cup showed what could be done. There has been a sharp decrease in murders (down almost 9%) and violent robberies for the first time since nation-wide records were first collected in 1995-6 (when there were 27,000 murders compared to 17,000 this year).


Why Indians are alcoholics and Asians can’t drink

Lords of the Drinks

A bit of a controversial post for some perhaps, but we’re gonna take a look at the genetic differences between races in relation to alcohol. The idea came up when reading an article on Mayas (Indians in central America) and how they showed higher rates of alcoholism. Another good example are the native Australians, the Aboriginals. Now a friend once told me about a teacher who told him there is no such thing as different races. Well, tell that to the thousands of white runners following a few Kenyans in a marathon. Of course there are differences. And not all are as clear to see as a skin color or the shape of the eyes (not to mention other body parts). Let’s check out the racial differences where it comes to the use of alcohol.

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Baby blue eyed boozers get bossed

Mexican faceApparently blue eyed people are seen as less dominant than brown-eyed people – regardless of whether or not they are attractive (see my earlier post; Take me to your (tall and probably attractive) leader).

But it’s not just because of the eye colour. Czech researchers think it might be because people with blue eyes are treated as children longer and become conditioned to being more submissive.

And according to economics writer Chris Dillow in The Times (2/6/10): binge-drinking is more common in northern than southern Europe. Researchers at the Universities  of Oslo and Wyoming say that it’s in the genes and because blue-eyed people, more common in the North, are shyer they drink more to loosen their inhibitions.

Back in December 2010 it was reported that Scientists had discovered a gene, HTR2B, which can make people more susceptible to bouts of sudden aggression when under the influence of alcohol. Research with violent criminals in Finnish prisons found they were three times more likely to carry an abnormal variant of the gene than ordinary people.

Although not the full answer as to why people engage in spontaneous and motiveless violence it explains how it can be triggered by other genetic and environmental factors.

This Q20* gene mutation is only found in Finns, and in only 1% of them, and as most of whom are not violent so there is no point in screening for it.

And it doesn’t explain what happens in the UK. But research at the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published in Nature shows that genetic factors coupled with drug and alcohol abuse can lead to impulsivity and spontaneous violence.

The Finns were chosen for the prison study because they are genetically distinct but they also appear to have problems with depression and drinking, maybe due to the long hours of darkness. The first time I was in Helsinki it was still Winter yet there were a number of people lying in the streets in a drunken stupour in the freezing cold. Passers-by just checked to see if they were OK and moved on as if it were quite normal.

And the last time I was in Helsinki wandering round a supermarket I couldn’t find the section for wines and spirits. I eventually asked a local who pointed me to a separate Alco section (the beer was with the bottled water so it shows their take on what constitutes an alcoholic drink)She explained that it was for their own good as alcohol-related problems are in their genes. Seems like she was right.

Despite that particular problem Finland is one of the most highly rated countries in the world on a range of measures and a popular one for people who want to live elsewhere.

First version posted June 2010


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Faithful families outbreed atheists

A study of 82 countries by researcher Michael Blume at Jena University in Germany found that those where the inhabitants worship at least once a week have 2.5 children whilst those who never worship have just 1.7 – not even enough to replace themselves. He calls it the Reproductive Advantage of Religiosity and predicts that over time societies dominated by non-believers will die out.

The academic argues that evolution favours the faithful because they are encouraged to breed as a religious duty. Over thousands of years atheist have had fewer children and the societies they belong to are more likely to disappear as a result. This of course contradicts the views of evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins who described religion as; “a virus of the mind” which imposes health risks and costs. But Blume argues that a tendency to religiosity has become embedded in our genes over time.

As well as the promotion of child-bearing, strong religious beliefs allow people to fit into their community and accept rules of behaviour and share tasks. This raises the chance of the children surviving and the religious people have far more of them in the first place with fundamentalists of all religions having the biggest families.

A Swiss census in 2000 found that “non-affiliated” women had the lowest number of babies at 1.1, Hindus had 2.79, Muslims 2.44, and Jews 2.06. These are averages of course and many larger families can be seen amongst jewish and muslim communities around the North-West of England. Apart from the religiosity I also wonder if  immigrants from poorer countries are “programmed” to have more children because of the lower survival rates in their own countries where they don’t expect all their children to survive.

The last census data in the UK showed that the birth rate among minority ethnic groups (not the same as religious followers I know) was growing at 15 times the rate of the white population The census report said that these figures were influenced by waves of immigration and the younger age profile of immigrants who were mainly young adults ie of child-bearing age.

Interestingly those groups which had been in the UK longest eg black people of Caribbean origin, showed no growth at all compared to black Africans with a 37% growth rate.

On the basis of this you might be forgiven for thinking that the more religious societies or countries are, the more social benefits they enjoy. Not necessarily so as there is evidence that the more religious the society the more violent it is.

Research published in 2007 by social scientist Gregory Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society showed that: “religious belief can cause damage to a society contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity, and suicide.” The study also said that belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

This of course is the exact opposite of what many believers think viz that religious belief is socially beneficial and the “spiritual capital” helps to lower the rates of crime and other social ills. Paul’s research concluded however that: “In general higher rates of belief and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion, in the prosperous democracies”.

The study concluded that America is the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates are still high and that the least devout nations were the least dysfuntional. As an example the rate of gonorrhoea in American adolescents is 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The report also concluded that England, despite its problems, was actually performing a good deal better in most indicators even though it is a much less religious nation than America. There was an even greater difference between America and countries like France, Japan and Scandinavian countries.

Paul concludes that most Western nations would; “become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven“. He also thought that the theory of evolution would never enjoy majority support in America unless there was a marked decline in religious belief. If Blume’s research conclusions are correct that isn’t likely to happen. So bigger families for believers but a higher level of crime and other social ills. It sure makes it hard for non-believers!

A Californian sociologist called Phil Zuckerman published research in 2009 that showed that the more atheists or agnostics a free society has the more moral it becomes. Atheists were more tolerant supporters of women’s and gay rights than believers. People like the Pope, militant Muslims, orthodox Jews, and other fundamentalist groups don’t seem to view the world in the same way when it comes to human rights that we take for granted such as women being equal to men.

And a study in the 1990s of the American prison population found that only 0.2% (that’s two in every thousand) of them were atheists. Non-believers are more likely to indulge in under-age drinking and illicit drug use but the US states with the highest murder rates tend to be the most religious ones in the bible belt while the lowest murder rates are found in the least religious states like Vermont and Oregon.

Zuckerman also found that atheists and non-believers were better educated and less prejudiced and were more likely to encourage their children to think independently.

When it comes to aid-giving the most secular country in the world, Sweden, gives the highest proportion of its GDP. Of the top ten donors only America is a strongly religious country and oil-rich countries are nowhere near as generous preferring to export ideology rather than aid.

Source: Nick Cohen in the Observer (12/9/10)


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Apples and pears – what fruit is your bum?

LV4_1-2It’s no longer just a question of “Does my bum look big in this?” but “what fruit is my bum?”

Apparently pear-shaped women, such as Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez, are more at risk of developing dementia than apple-shaped women, such as Catherine Zeta Jones.

Obesity is known to be bad for your health but it’s not just whether or not you have put on weight but where it goes. Pear-shaped women tend to put weight on their hips whereas apple-shaped women develop a spare tyre round their middle.

When tested using a standard memory test for dementia researchers found that the higher your body-mass index (BMI) the lower your test scores and the pears were worse affected than the apples.

Different types of fat have different effects on us in relation to high blood pressure and diabetes and they are deposited in different parts of the body. Fat may also contribute to the brain deposits associated with Alzeimer’s or restrict blood flow in the brain.

The bottom line is that being overweight is bad for us.


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What makes you happy – part 2

Despite what England fans might feel right now football competitions can make you happy as I said in an earlier post – but only in the short-term – and only if you are the host country.

But even that doesn’t make you as happy as a good marriage. Married people are happier than single people (it could be that happy people get married more easily). And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married makes up for  all the negative affects of unemployment.

Just don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

How do you know if people are really happy? Women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are. Probably because we expect women to be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour that doesn’t fit our expectations.

Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity whereas stress lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. So middle-aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Older people also focus more on the positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “What makes you Happy).

We are attracted to happy people because we think theye will give good genes to our children. Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year olds) or watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to teetotallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a “set point” or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So like the football example, winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to ideas from positive psychology we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more involved in things, and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want“, suggests the following  to raise your levels of happiness:

  • Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  • Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  • Savour life’s joys
  • Thank a mentor
  • Learn to forgive
  • Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  • Take care of your body and health
  • Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.