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CAN WE CHANGE OUR EMOTIONAL TENDENCIES?

Shannon Harvey

There’s a particular person in my life who is always unhappy. No matter what good things come their way, they always find a reason to be negative. As a person who tends towards the sunny side of life I often feel frustrated when I’m around this person. I want them to be different. I want them see the good in the world. I want them to appreciate what they do have instead of focusing on what they don’t have. Lately, I’ve found myself avoiding them because no matter what I do or say, they won’t change. This got me thinking about the science of our emotional dispositions and wondering whether there’s any evidence to suggest whether we can change? Is it possible to become happier or more positive, or is our nature genetically programed?  

You’ve probably heard that people who win the lottery ultimately end up no happier than if they hadn’t been blessed by their financial stroke of luck. It’s a well known fact based on a study done in 1978 and it is often used to demonstrate that we’re born with an emotional disposition that cannot be changed, come what may. The argument is that despite the highs and lows we may experience in our lives, we all have a wellbeing baseline that we are destined to return to. Research published since that 1978 paper continues to support this viewpoint. For example, an Australian study, which tracked people for six years found that despite fluctuations in subjective wellbeing that coincided with the ups and downs of life, over time people tended to return to a predicable set point.  

There’s a brain basis for this viewpoint too. The pioneering neuroscientist Richard Davidson can tell by scanning your brain whether or not you’re inclined to be positive or negative, how focused you can be, how socially sensitive and self aware you are, and even how resilient you might be after a set back. (Check out his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain if you want to read more). There’s also a growing body of twin research, which suggests that how happy you’ll be is likely to be 35 to 50 per cent due to your genetic make up. Two researchers think it may even be as high as 80 percent. So regardless of where you live, how much money you have, who you marry, how good looking you are, or any of the windfalls and challenges that come your way, it seems your genes are largely responsible for your emotional well being.  

With all this in mind, it would be easy to take a fatalistic view that you’re stuck with a particular genetic blueprint that will forever form the foundations of your emotional architecture and that your tendencies towards positivity or negativity, towards optimism or pessimism, towards resilience or rumination are all set in stone for the rest of your life. But before you fall into a pit of despair and regret the money you’ve spent on happiness books promoting pure mythology, ask yourself this - If say 50 percent of your emotional life is governed by genetics, what governs the rest? Is it possible that 50 percent is actually within our control?  

This is a question that two of the world’s leading happiness scientists, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology from the University of California, Riverside and Ken Sheldon, a Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri have teamed up to answer over the last two decades. The good news is that they have demonstrated that it is possible to become happier. An analysis that combined results from 51 randomised controlled interventions found that people prompted to engage in positive intentional activities such as thinking gratefully, optimistically, or mindfully, were able to become significantly happier. This is further supported by research from Richard Davidson’s neuroscience lab, which demonstrated that an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction program delivered to a group of stressed out biotechnology workers resulted in changes in their brain that indicated they had shifted towards being more positive.  

The positive psychology research movement is hard at work trying to discern what the best ways to go about boosting happiness are and you’ll find that I’ve written about some of them throughout this blog. So far, things such as deliberately practicing gratitude, savoring positive experiences and seeking out wonder and awe are proving promising interventions. But it’s important to note that, as we are all unique, we don’t all need positive psychology interventions and not all positive psychology interventions will work for everyone. The other interesting thing is that these positive interventions have been shown to be less effective over time, probably because of our innate tendency to adapt. People doing positivity boosting exercises get used to them, just like lottery winners get used to being millionaires.  

There’s one more crucial finding from the Lyubomirsky/ Sheldon research and I think it gets to the core of answer to my question about whether or not we can change our emotional dispositions. They’ve found that positivity interventions are most successful when participants know about them, endorse them and commit to them. For me, this is essential because the person in my life who I often wish would make more effort to be positive has no desire whatsoever to make a change. As hard as it is for me to reconcile, this person is content in their misery. For that reason, I have to concede that there’s not much I can do. I’ll be here if they change their mind. But for now, it’s on me to accept them for who they are and who they want to be.


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