Is there a thin genetic line between happiness and depression?

 Energy flows where attention goes,” is a philosophy on well-being that resonates with individuals who are seeking positivity. Now, a new review suggests this is the case when it comes to happiness and depression. It seems the same genes that steer us toward depression can also open us to positivity. Researchers call for a new framework that takes into account both cognitive and genetic factors as a way of developing personalized therapies.
(un)happy business man
Is happiness a choice? Researchers say the same gene that predisposes us to depression also opens us to positivity.

The review is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry and is led by Prof. Elaine Fox, from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and Prof. Chris Beevers, from the University of Texas in Austin.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that located so-called happiness genes for the first time.

Profs. Fox and Beevers say that following on from studies such as this, there is a clear need to combine research on mental health genetics and cognitive biases.

“Cognitive biases are when people consistently interpret situations through particular mental ‘filters’ – when people have a cognitive bias that emphasizes negative aspects or thoughts, they are more at risk of mental health disorders,” explains Prof. Beevers.

Health is more than simply the lack of disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They define health as “a resource that allows people to realize their aspirations, satisfy their needs and to cope with the environment in order to live a long, productive, and fruitful life.”

Among the resources for health, the CDC list “positive emotions” as essential:

”There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment, and positive functioning.”

Nature vs. nurture

Prof. Fox notes that when “you take a gene that is linked to mental illness, and compare people who have the same genetic variant, it becomes clear that what happens to their mental health is based on their environment.”

She is currently conducting research into the combined genetic and environmental effect on our mental filters. Called the CogBIAS project, it is funded by the European Research Council.

Profs. Fox and Beevers note that negative cognitive biases and genetic variation have been linked with risk of psychopathology in independent research lines. However, they believe these research fields can be combined.

“We propose that gene by environment (G x E) interactions may be mediated by selective cognitive biases and that certain forms of genetic ‘reactivity’ or ‘sensitivity’ may represent heightened sensitivity to the learning environment in a ‘for better’ and ‘for worse’ manner,” they write.

The two psychology researchers discuss their differential susceptibility hypothesis, which asserts that in similar group sizes of more and less susceptible individuals, there will be no main genetic effect, but rather a crossover interaction with susceptible people doing worse in negative environments but better in positive environments, compared with less susceptible people.

According to the researchers, however, little is known about the psychological and biological mechanisms that are behind differential susceptibility.

As such, they recommend cognitive processing of emotional information as a way to positively harness how differential susceptibility affects psychological well-being.

‘Potential to lead to real breakthroughs’

“We suggest that while no gene ’causes’ mental ill health, some genes can make people more sensitive to the effects of their environment,” says Prof. Fox.

”If you have those genes and are in a negative environment, you are likely to develop the negative cognitive biases that lead to mental disorders. If you have those genes but are in a supportive environment, you are likely to develop positive cognitive biases that increase your mental resilience.”

Prof. Elaine Fox, Oxford University

As part of her future studies, she wants to observe how sets of genes could affect mental health outcomes and how individual environments play a role.

She and Prof. Beevers say following on from this research, personalized interventions could help encourage those who are genetically sensitive to the environment to cultivate a more flexible pattern of thinking positively, rather than defaulting to negativity.

“This is highly speculative at the moment, of course,” write the researchers, but they believe this approach “has the potential to lead to real breakthroughs in the development of novel therapeutic interventions.”

Read about how researchers have pinpointed the brain’s happiness region.

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