Is our wellbeing genetic?

The question of nature versus nurture — whether genetics or our environment plays the biggest role in determining our personality — has been a hotly debated topic in scientific circles for decades. Now, some fascinating research is being carried out in Australia to determine the role of our genes and the environment in how resilient we are to life’s difficulties.

We spoke to Dr Justine Gatt, Group Leader and Senior Research Scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and School of Psychology at UNSW, about the findings from her research into the genetics of wellbeing, and whether or not it is possible to become more resilient and experience a greater sense of wellbeing as we age.

What is resilience?
Resilience is often defined as someone’s ability to survive trauma — such as a job loss, death of a loved one, illness, natural disaster, or financial difficulties — without developing a mental health problem.

In scientific terms, resilience can be better explained as the process of being able to adapt positively after a traumatic experience, says Gatt. “It’s more [about] the steps that you take to deal with that particular stressor so that you’re functioning well,” she says.

Some factors associated with resilience include:

  • Having a positive outlook on life and satisfaction with your achievements
  • Having the capacity to manage feelings and impulses
  • Having a positive view of yourself and your abilities

Unlocking the secrets of resilience will lead to ways to help develop this process in others, says Gatt. “A lot of psychiatric research focuses on how to predict and prevent mental illness. There’s a lot less focus on how people are flourishing,” she says. “Wellbeing is not just the absence of mental health symptoms — it’s a completely different state of being — so it’s important to understand it in its own right,” she says.

The TWIN-E study
To unravel the underlying mechanisms of wellbeing and resilience, Dr Gatt and her colleagues are studying a group of 1600 healthy adult twin volunteers over time.

The TWIN-E Emotional Wellbeing study began in 2009 with the aim of identifying key risk factors for emotional vulnerability and resilience in the twins, including the role their genes and environments play in their vulnerability or resilience to trauma.

In the first part of the study, identical and non-identical twin volunteers from the Australian Twin Registry completed computer questionnaires as well as cognitive tests. They also provided saliva samples for the researchers to study their genes.

Brain imaging was also carried out on some of the twins to help the scientists determine if different brain networks influenced their wellbeing and resilience.

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Brain imaging was used to assist the researcher's findings

What the researchers found
From this study, Dr Gatt and her team were able to develop a 26-item questionnaire called the COMPAS-W scale to measure wellbeing.

They used this scale to study how different genes contribute to wellbeing in their twin sample. “What we found was that genes account for 48 per cent of our wellbeing. That means almost half of our wellbeing is determined by our genes. Our environment accounts for the other half,” says Gatt.

In the next phase of research, Gatt and her colleagues will perform a ten-year follow-up study on the twins to see how their brains have changed over time and to determine how these changes are associated with levels of resilience.

The researchers also plan to study the role the twin’s genes have played in their resilience to trauma.

What the findings mean
If you don’t like the idea that your wellbeing might be determined by a gene variant that you may or may not have, there’s no need for alarm. The underlying genetics of wellbeing and resilience could be far more complex than previously thought.

“It’s likely a large number of genes have very small effects on wellbeing and resilience,” says Gatt. “The other thing is that these genes might not necessarily predispose you to be more or less protected from trauma. They might just influence how malleable you are to your life experiences — whether or not you are more or less sensitive to the impacts of positive and negative environments,” she explains.

Even if you do assume that approximately 50 per cent of your wellbeing is determined by your genes, there’s still a lot you can do on the environmental side, says Gatt. She has developed six key resilience tips that are likely to form the basis of e-health tools to help people to become more resilient.

  1. Composure. Learn to deal with stress in a positive manner.
  2. Own worth. Develop your sense of self-worth. Hold firm to your values and boundaries.
  3. Mastery. Build your self-confidence. Understand your strengths and your weaknesses.
  4. Positivity. Have a positive outlook. Include fun activities in your life.
  5. Achievement. Set meaningful goals. These should support your interests and talents.
  6. Satisfaction with life. Maintain your physical health, practise mindfulness and gratitude.

How resilient do you think you are?

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