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Mental & Emotional Health

Quick to Laugh or Smile? The Reason May Be in Your Genes

Why do some people immediately burst into laughter after a humorous moment, while others can barely crack a smile? New research examined emotional reactivity and suggested that one of the answers may lie in a person’s DNA. Claudia M. Haase of Northwestern University and Ursula Beermann of the University of Geneva co-authored the study, which was conducted in the laboratories of Dacher Keltner and Robert W. Levenson at the University of California, Berkeley. The was study was published online June 1st 2015 in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion.

A release from Northwestern explains that the researchers linked a gene to positive emotional expressions such as smiling and laughing, demonstrating that people with a certain genetic variant — those with short alleles of the gene 5-HTTLPR — smiled or laughed more while watching cartoons or subtly amusing film clips than people with long alleles.

The release notes that previous research had linked the gene to negative emotions. The 2015 study provided the strongest evidence to date that the same gene is also linked to positive emotional expressions.

In the study, the scientists looked at short and long alleles of the gene 5-HTTLPR, which is involved in the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter implicated in depression and anxiety.

An allele is a variant of a gene. Each gene has two alleles; humans inherit one allele from mom and one from dad.

Early research suggested that the short alleles predicted unwanted or negative outcomes, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. People with short alleles were found to have higher negative emotions than those with long alleles.

But the latest study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that people with short alleles also may be more sensitive to the emotional highs of life.

“Having the short allele is not bad or risky,” said Haase, an assistant professor in the Human Development and Social Policy program at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “Instead, the short allele amplifies emotional reactions to both good and bad environments.”

“Our study provides a more complete picture of the emotional life of people with the short allele,” Haase added. “People with short alleles may flourish in a positive environment and suffer in a negative one, while people with long alleles are less sensitive to environmental conditions.”

“The fundamental truth of genes is that they don’t have the final say,” said senior author Levenson, a leading researcher in human emotions and professor in the department of psychology at UC-Berkeley. “There’s always an interaction between nature and nurture that shapes outcomes, and this study is another example of that.”


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