Feeling good: The science of well-being

C. Robert Cloninger, M.D., the Wallace Renard Professor of Psychiatry, professor of genetics and director of the Center for the Psychobiology of Personality and the Sansone Center for Well-Being at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

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    Cloninger says as social groups have developed, it has become clear that both kindness and service to others are essential, both for the happiness and mental health of the individual and for the good of the entire social group.
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    One of the important things that makes us uniquely human is our capacity for self-awareness. Cloninger says that attribute is the key to making both personal happiness and cooperation within social groups possible. In fact, he says antisocial responses tend to be devensive reactions from human beings who are exposed either to environmental hazards or genetic defects.

On February 19, Cloninger speaks on “Feeling good: The science of well-being” as part of a session he helped organize called “Man the hunted: The origin and nature of human sociality.” The session runs from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

A great deal of research on the development of human personality has shown that people have spontaneous needs for happiness, self-understanding and love. Brain imaging studies demonstrate that the normal response patterns for people are pro-social and based on telling the truth and cooperating with others.

Cloninger’s research focuses on the causes of individual differences in personality development and on the genetic epidemiology of psychiatric disorders. His work involves longitudinal and family studies of normal and abnormal personality, alcoholism, schizophrenia and related traits, concentrating in particular on the interactions between personality and psychiatric illness.

“My work studying and classifying variations in personality has convinced me that meeting the basic, human need for happiness requires that we humans use our uniquely human gift of self-awareness,” Cloninger says.

Cloninger’s research has greatly increased the understanding of biological and genetic factors in addiction, particularly alcoholism. His most significant work has been conducted in adoptees raised separately from their biological relatives. Those studies led to discoveries about the relative influences of genetics and environmental factors in the development of alcoholism and personality.

Robert Cloninger
Robert Cloninger

He also has investigated the genetic epidemiology of alcoholism and several other psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia and personality disorders. His more than 30 years of research in those areas has led him to transport a scientific paradigm into the study of well-being.

Keys to well-being include personality traits such as self-directedness, which is measured in terms of how easily people can let go of conflicts. Another pillar of well-being is the ability to cooperate with others. Transcendence of the self also is important.

“We are physical, mental and spiritual beings, and neglecting any of those aspects can lead to conflict and contradiction,” Cloninger says. “To promote and maintain well-being, scientists must concentrate not only on the biological but also on other aspects of personality, including the psychological and the spiritual.”

Cloninger argues that fear, violence and addictions interfere with normal human behavior and can contribute to psychiatric illness as well as to cycles of violence, distrust and despair. Those behaviors, however, are relatively uncommon in human beings and tend to be abnormal responses to unnatural conditions.

“The bottom line is that human beings need to be good, kind, truthful and hopeful,” Cloninger says. “Antisocial responses are defensive reactions from threatened human beings and do not represent spontaneous expressions of basic needs.”

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.