Psychologists believe that people tend to have a baseline, or resting point for their moods, based in part on life experience, not solely on genetics. New research reveals that these baselines tend to stay constant for long periods of time, especially in people with anxiety and depression. “The overwhelming view within psychiatry and psychology is that it is due to genetic factors,” says Kenneth S. Kendler, psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Yet we know that extreme environmental adversities, such as abuse in childhood or wartime trauma, have a long-term impact on people.”
Kendler and colleagues from VCU, as well as the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, VU University of Amsterdam and the University of California gathered data from almost 8,000 twins, half of whom were paired, the other half unpaired. Twins were the ideal subjects because they share the same genetic composition, and can show the true impact of nurture versus nature. The longitudal studies from which the data was collected included twins as young as age 11 and through their late 60’s. The research showed that baselines of the youngest twins were similar, but began to diverge as they aged, leveling off by age 60. The researchers believe that genetics play a role in a person’s predisposition to certain moods, but experiences significantly impact where moods settle.
Kendler and his colleagues believe that this study will impact more than just the exploration of depression and anxiety. They feel that this study demonstrates the importance of positive life experiences in order to achieve a sense of overall life satisfaction. “Environmental experiences have a memory and stay with us,” says Kendler. “What governs the emotional set point of adults is a mixture of genetic factors and the total aggregate of environmental experiences.” He concludes by saying, “If you want to be happy in old age, live a good life.”
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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