Finally, there’s a gene that is biased in favour of women. A gene that makes women happy but mysteriously has no effect on men could be the reason why most women handle the ups and downs of life better than men. The gene, called MAOA — it comes in a hyperactive and a less active variation — affects the levels of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins that regulate mood, reported the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry on Saturday. Women with two copies of the gene – 17% of the ones studied — were predictably the happiest.
Happiness is hardwired in our DNA, which explains why some of us get more emotional about rude colleagues, pesky neighbours or nasty parking-lot attendants than others. Of course, circumstances also affect stress levels, and I’m not talking about immediate stress that triggers outbursts, such as road rage. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health, among others, show that chronic stress, especially that experienced in early childhood from chronic neglect or exposure to domestic violence, can permanently deactivates the body’s stress response system, affecting the brain and other organs. The numbing of the stress response has the same effect as chronic stress, making you lose your sleep and your mind over time.
For stress, or the complete paralysis of a stress response, triggers inflammation and exposes you to a host of lifestyle disorders , such as hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, diabetes and depression, to name just a very few.
A sunny outlook means fewer colds and lower chances of a heart attack. It also means quicker recovery from whatever illness or surgery you are recuperating from. Studies in the past have shown that levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop by one-third in people who are happy as compared to those who are least happy. People with an upbeat demeanor also show a lowering of a protein called plasma fibrinogen, high levels of which indicates higher chances of heart disease. Laughter also makes the inner lining of blood vessels (endothelium) to dilate, which increases blood flow and lowers pressure on the heart. I won’t even get into how happiness helps you keep brooding thoughts at bay, lowering your chances of risk behaviours such as smoking, drinking and other forms of substance abuse.
Since New York’s Big Apple Circus, which pioneered the first professional hospital clowning programme, hospitals in the US, Canada, Israel and some countries in Europe have formed clowning guilds to infuse laughter into medicine. Working like paramedics, these clowns — in some cases, with big red noses and bigger smiles in place — go around wards to bring laughter to speed up recovery.
What’s new is that clowns have now moved out of paediatric units and cancer wards to make their presence felt among adults seeking treatment. One Israeli study, published in the international journal Fertility and Sterility last year, reported that a woman’s chances of getting pregnant after in-vitro fertilisation went up from 20.2% to 36.4% if a clown was brought in to entertain and relax her immediately after the obstetrician implanted a fertilised egg in her womb.
Since there is little you can do about your DNA or the way your parents brought up you, you can laugh away — or at least postpone — most of your health problems. Even fake laughter works. Dr Charles Schaefer, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, found that laughing, both real and enforced, brings benefits because the body’s natural physiological response to joy makes the brain to release endorphins, the happy hormones, which immediately lower stress.
So, even if you don’t find that joke funny, make an effort to laugh anyway. It may just add a few years to your life.