Skip to main content

Why are your eyes the colour they are? Eye colour is determined by a variation of genetics passed on from our family tree.

Do you think your mental health is influenced by your genetics as well?

Based on my experience, mental health is 50 per cent genetic and 50 per cent environment. Research shows that both nature and nurture play a role in predicting who will develop a mental illness.

It has been found that 50 per cent of the time when one identical twin developed a mental illness (such as anxiety, an eating disorder, attention deficit disorder), the other twin did not, suggesting nature alone doesn’t define who will and will not develop a mental illness.

Research by the National Institute of Mental Health found that the cause of many mental disorders is related to a person’s biological, environmental, psychological and other genetic factors. However, there’s little evidence to suggest any genetic test can accurately predict who will develop a mental disorder.

Even in individuals who don’t inherit any mental illness risk genes, science is learning that genes can change after birth and contribute to mental illness through a process called de novo genetic change. How a person interacts with their environment combined with their life choices can influence their mental health and their risk for mental illness.

This micro skill highlights the value of maximizing our genetic potential with respect to mental health by paying attention to daily micro decisions that can be helpful or harmful.


Using a physical fitness analogy, imagine you’re being tested for your maximum standing vertical jump at two different points of time. A vertical jump is described as standing with your feet together, making a deep knee squat and then exploding straight up as high as you can to touch a mark above your head.

The first jump, you’re in the best shape of your life and you jump 24 inches. When it comes to physical output like a vertical jump, we all have a set genetic potential. Even if we train for a long time, it’s doubtful if we’ll ever match the 36-inch height that a professional basketball star can attain.


Since the first jump, you put on 20 extra pounds, and decide not to train for the second test. This time you reach only 17 inches – seven inches lower than the first effort. What changed were your physical health and micro decisions – not your genetics.

Like a vertical jump, we all have a genetic potential that defines the maximum we get from our genes. Maximizing our genetic potential with respect to mental health can be done by paying attention to our mental fitness.

If genetics plays a role in explaining 50 per cent of your mental health and you ignore it, you’ll lose your genetic benefit. Unlike the vertical jump that’s measured in inches, mental state can be rated on a continuum from high mental health (flourishing: feeling great, thriving mentally and emotionally) to low (languishing: struggling and pushing to get through each day).


Maximizing genetic mental health potential begins with accepting that daily micro decisions matter.

Develop a personal mental fitness plan designed to build your mental fitness so you have the energy needed to push through life’s challenges and to bounce back from setbacks.

The following is an example of what can be done each day to promote mental fitness and maximize genetic mental health potential:

  • Physical – commit to making good micro decisions with respect to sleep, nutrition and activity.
  • Passion – engage in daily activities you enjoy.
  • Create – generate safe spaces for others by smiling, saying hello and thank you.
  • Acknowledge – tell people you care about how important they are to you.
  • Relationship – hang around people you trust and know they care about you.
  • Experience – take moments each day to breathe, laugh, smell and notice.
  • Gratitude – before going to sleep at night, write out three things you’re grateful for.
  • Share – be willing to help others when asked.
  • Peace – commit to resolving disagreements and conflict quickly.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada and co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.