Optimism May Be Partly in Your Genes

November 12, 2012

Optimism May Be Partly in Your Genes

Genes may have input to Optimism and Self-Esteem

Findings recently published online in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences appear to explain why some people’s glass is always half full, while other folk’s glass is always half empty. If you always look on the bright side it may be that you have lots of the hormone called oxytocin.

Researchers have identified that oxytocin is the hormone related to good personal feelings. It’s abundant in breast feeding mothers, can be found after orgasm in both men and women and is known as the love or cuddle hormone. It is believed to have an association with feelings of optimism and self esteem. Some people believe that it is also related to our feelings of empowerment over our own lives. Known as mastery, this is a belief that we have control over our life and our destiny.

The study had 326 participants who answered questions about their self esteem, mastery and optimism. At the same time researchers were analyzing their DNA from their saliva. Variants of the gene responsible for optimism, self esteem and mastery were assessed. All participants also conducted a uniform test to measure depression.

A small area on the oxytocin receptor had genetic material which could have an association with the traits relating to optimism. The researchers presently have little understanding of how the release mechanism works. But it is known that two variants, ‘A’ and ‘G’ combine in this area.

A little chunk of genetic material on the oxytocin receptor gene may influence these personality traits. Exactly how the gene affects the release of oxytocin is not fully understood. A combination of two variants, an “A” and “G” are located in this small area.

The Gene

The researchers found that people who were more pessimistic, had lower self esteem and less feeling of mastery had a gene variation with one or two ‘A’s. These people also had more indications of depression than others who had a variant with two ‘G’s. It was found that having two ‘G’s, made it more probable that you would have a positive outlook on life.

Experts acknowledge that if you have an ‘A’ in your make-up then “the deck is stacked against you somewhat”. However many environmental inputs can vary the outcome. It is not written in stone that you will see your world always in a negative light. It’s the combination of genes and environmental factors that affects your worldview. However no one should think that they will be happy or sad just because of genes.

One expert said, “Genes predict behavior, but they are not the be-all and end-all. There is a lot of room for environmental variations, like how you were raised and the life experiences that you have had”.

Philip D. Harvey, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine acknowledges that this is a very complicated subject by saying, “Rarely does one gene influence any one personality trait. My guess is that there are multiple gene interactions involved”. He further points out that, “There are genes that influence the way you process emotional information, and this gene affects the way you see the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change the way you look at the world”.

Get a Social Network

Paul J. Zak, PhD, is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, California and he says that genes are not destiny, although he does admit, “Some people may have a genetic leg up, and if your parents treat you well and you don’t experience any childhood trauma, you may develop richer social networks.”

When he started to read the report he was not convinced. However on further reading he tends to accept many of the findings. He urges that connecting with other people is the way to improve your life when saying, “Jump on the social connection bandwagon now”. He acknowledges that we are all different but says, “We may not all have the genetic predisposition for happiness and we may not release enough oxytocin. But there are things that we can engage in — from social media to dancing”.

Another expert, Alan Manevitz, MD, a psychiatrist at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, agrees with Zak. He starts by saying, “Just because you have a gene doesn’t mean you are fated to be happy or sad, it means you are more vulnerable to these traits.” And in response to your situation he says, “Whatever helps you connect with others will help you improve your life”, before concluding, “This speaks to the idea of developing coping mechanisms early”.

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