Since the mid-1980s, Dr. William Dressler and colleagues have been examining the influence of culture on individual well-being through pioneering the cultural consonance approach. Cultural consonance measures how successful people are in achieving the broad goals that are collectively valued in their society, especially goals across the life-span (for example, creating a satisfying family life). Dr. Dressler recently completed research funded by the National Science Foundation aimed to replicate and extend research on gene-environment interactions and subjective well-being among persons of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in an urban center in Brazil.
Research in the past decade has shown that individuals with different genetic profiles are variably influenced by stressful environmental events and
circumstances in terms of their sense of subjective well-being, including feelings of depression. While intriguing results have been observed, the range of environmental events and circumstances that have been investigated has been relatively narrow. A major goal of Dr. Dressler’s recent research was to understand how different kinds of environmental experience may—or may not—be modified by genes.
The project focused on two genetic polymorphisms thought to influence well-being. One, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, affects the health and development of nerve cells. The other, a receptor for the neurotransmitter serotonin, is related to the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain. In addition to cultural consonance, three indicators of experience in the social environment were studied. Childhood adversity refers to stressful events in childhood, such as the death or serious illness of a parent or a history of maltreatment. Stressful life events refer to current events such as divorce, death of a spouse or child, and unemployment. Frustration tolerance is a psychological disposition in which small and large setbacks can be accepted.
Data were collected in a survey of over 400 adults from diverse socioeconomic groups. Genotypes were determined from samples of cells from the cheek. Other data were collected in face-to-face interviews. Subjective well-being was measured as the number of symptoms of depression, isolation, and hopelessness the respondent had experienced in the two weeks prior to the interview.
Major results were as follows: Childhood adversity was moderated by genotype, especially by the serotonin receptor gene. Persons with a specific variant for the gene were at much higher risk of reporting high levels of depressive symptoms if they had experienced childhood adversity (Fig. 1). The moderation of genotype-by-childhood adversity in relation to depressive symptoms was especially strong among persons from a low socioeconomic background (Fig. 2). Persons with this serotonin receptor variant and who experienced childhood adversity also had lower frustration tolerance. Cultural consonance proved to be the strongest influence on subjective well-being—risk of high levels of depressive symptoms was strongest for people with low cultural consonance (Fig. 3).
The results of this research present a more nuanced view of the influence of genes, the environment, and the interaction of genes and environment on subjective well-being. Persons who experience high adversity in childhood are more likely to experience lower well-being as adults, especially if they have a particular genetic background. On the other hand, if those individuals are able to achieve the kinds of goals in life that are widely valued in their society, they are less likely to experience depression, isolation, and hopelessness as adults. Additionally, their genetic background does not alter the experience of cultural consonance.
Subjective well-being has been shown to have a powerful influence on physical health and social and economic productivity over the life-span. This well-being matters to individuals and to society. The influences on well-being are complex, ranging from the molecular biology of individual genetic differences to the collective goals and values called culture that help to hold a society together. Understanding and enhancing well-being for individuals and society depends on the analysis of these diverse influences, and this research contributes to that end.