Wired for happiness? How ‘risky’ genes could go either way

Experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, Elaine Fox, tells Lauren Razavi about her surprising research into the links between genes and happiness

My research investigates the cognitive and genetic mechanisms that cause some people to flourish and others to struggle. In simpler terms, the fundamental question we are exploring is: why do people react to the same life events differently? Some people develop anxiety and depression while others appear resilient.

Until now, research into cognitive biases and genetics have been entirely separate, so bringing them together is really exciting.

Previous research clearly tells us that certain sets of genes seem to predispose people to developing anxiety or depression when they experience negative life events. But more recently we’re finding that, in certain situations, those very same ‘risky’ genes can also be a real benefit to people when they’re in supportive environments.

If a child with so-called risky genes is in a good school, has great parents and has a lot of support, he or she can really flourish. We’re now beginning to realise that we shouldn’t be calling them risky genes at all, but sensitivity genes instead. This means that some of the people at risk of mental health problems could, in the right conditions, be really happy.

We’ve found that ‘risky’ genes can benefit people when they’re in supportive environments

The other side of my research looks at cognitive biases. People always ask me: “why is the media full of negative news stories?”

This negativity can result in a society where people feel very anxious all the time. All of our brains are naturally tuned into negativity for evolutionary reasons – it’s more important to spot a predator than food – but this is especially true for anxious or depressed people. People sometimes feel there’s an unknown threat that’s difficult to get away from.

If there’s a real threat, of course we should be aware of it. But when it is something like terrorism, which can be hard to respond to personally, people can just be left on edge all of the time. Those with sensitivity genes are even more susceptible to the effects of negative information, making it more likely that they will adopt a negativity bias and pessimistic habits of mind.

Crucially, we now know that these same people who are more affected by negativity are also more likely to be responsive to positive situations and, potentially, to psychological interventions.

People who are more affected by negativity are also more likely to be responsive to positive situations

Right now, we’re following a sample of more than 500 children from the ages of 12 to 17 to try to understand why people are differently sensitive to their environments.

One of the exciting things is the possibility of developing much more personalised treatment options. This is far in the future and we are not there yet – this is a five-year project and we’re only halfway through. But the aim is to understand how our cognitive biases and our genes work together to lead to either increased vulnerability or resilience. Once we know this we will be in a better position to tailor treatments for individuals, rather than applying the one-size-fits-all approach used now.

Elaine Fox is the author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism

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