The Depression Gene: Does It Predict Happiness In Kids, Too?

It’s true. We all turn into our mothers (or fathers) as we age, and by that logic our kids will one day grow up to be … just like us? How much influence do parents really have on their children? Although it’s no secret that some kids are more easily swayed by their parents than others, a new study suggests that how much you affect your kids may actually boil down to genetics.

Published this week in Translational Psychiatry, researchers examined 1,900 kids between the ages of 9 and 15, reports HealthDay. Focusing on a version of the seratonin-transporter gene, the study found a significant link between this genetic variation and the degree to which a child is affected by his or her environment.

A 2003 study got a lot of people talking about this gene. The media nicknamed it the “depression gene” because research showed carriers were more likely to feel sad when faced with “life stressors.” These results were exacerbated when it came to individuals that had experienced childhood trauma. Subsequent research on the subject has consistently focused on backing up or refuting this claim.

Benjamin L. Hankin, lead author on the most recent study -- and associate professor of clinical child and developmental cognitive neuroscience psychology at the University of Denver -- said that he views the gene in a slightly different way. “In this research, we took the same gene … and said, maybe it doesn’t just put you at risk for negative outcomes,” Hankin told The Huffington Post. “It might mean that you’re more sensitive and responsive to environments [in general].” Instead of calling the shortened version of the 5-HTTLPR gene the “depression gene,” it might be more aptly referred to as the “sensitivity gene.”

Children who carried the long version of the 5-HTTLPR gene seemed to be able to maintain a positive attitude in the face of less-than-supportive parenting. Kids with the shorter variation were hit much harder. On the flip side, when their parents were more responsive and accommodating, these same kids’ feelings of happiness surpassed those of their long-gene counterparts. Hankin compared this phenomenon to the botanical difference between weeds and orchids:

Some individuals are orchids, some are weeds. Weeds will grow anywhere; they’ll be just fine. Those are the kids who carry the long version of this gene. The orchid, if [it has] a wonderful, flourishing environment, [will] grow up into a beautiful flower. If not, it’ll wither.

Clearly kids aren’t plants, but Hankin’s study is far from the first to tie our dispositions to factors beyond our control. In 2008, TIME reported University of Endinburgh researchers had found that happiness was determined by a set of innate personality traits. Other studies have linked happiness to age or socioeconomic status.

The ultimate takeaway from this recent research seems to be that providing a supportive environment for your kids to grow up in is more important than ever. If you're thinking, "well, duh!" we understand -- this "lesson" seems like little more than parenting common sense. However, Hankin was quick to point out a caveat to this PSA-sounding message.

While the researcher -- who is a father himself -- does not suggest getting your kid genotyped, he does suggest that parents pay extra attention to children with more “irritable temperaments,” as these kids are more likely to have the shortened gene. "[With these children], your input has a greater impact,” he says. “As your child grows up, the challenges are going to change, but you can put your kid on a trajectory for more adaptive, positive mental health.”