UCLA scientists have identified for a particular gene that they believe is linked to optimism, self-esteem and mastery, which is the belief that one has control over one’s own life. Previous research has suggested that these three psychological resources are strongly associated with coping well with stress and depression and are critical components of optimistic thinking.
The researchers had been looking for the gene in question for a number of years, suspecting that it was most likely associated with self-esteem.
The gene the researchers identified is the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Oxytocin is a hormone that increases in response to stress and is associated with good social skills such as empathy and enjoying the company of others.
According to the researchers, their study was the first to report a gene associated with psychological resources, such as self-esteem. They found that the effect of OXTR on depressive symptoms was fully explained by psychological resources.
The oxytocin receptor gene has two versions: an “A” (adenine) variant and a “G” (guanine) variant. Several studies have suggested that people with at least one “A” variant have an increased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills, as well as worse mental health outcomes.
The researchers found that people who have either two “A” nucleotides or one “A” and one “G” at this specific location on the oxytocin receptor gene have substantially lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms than people with two “G” nucleotides.
The researchers pointed out that genes do not actually predict behavior or psychological states. For example, genes are just one factor that influences psychological resources and depression, but there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well. A supportive childhood, good relationships, friends and even other genes also play a role in the development of psychological resources, and these factors also play a very substantial role in whether people become depressed.
For the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers brought 326 people into a UCLA laboratory and had them complete self-assessments of optimism, self-esteem and mastery. To measure self-esteem, questionnaires included such statements as “I feel I am a person of worth, at least as much as other people” and asked subjects whether they agreed or disagreed, using a four-point scale. To measure optimism, the researchers included statements such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best” and “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”
The researchers obtained DNA from participants’ saliva and used UCLA’s Genotyping Center to analyze the DNA for the variants in the OXTR gene. In addition, participants completed an assessment of depression, using a tool that is often employed by clinical psychologists to identify people at risk for mental health problems.
People with the “A” variant scored substantially higher on depression. The question was whether that association between the gene and depression is explained by psychological resources and the answer was yes. The relation of the gene to depression was explained entirely by psychological resources.
Even people with the “A” variant can overcome depression and manage stress. The researchers found nothing that interferes with learning coping skills.
The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, suggests that people would benefit if they could train themselves to be more optimistic, to have higher self-esteem and a higher sense of mastery to improve their ability to cope with stressful events.