Developmental programming of happiness

Dev Psychobiol. 2017 Sep;59(6):715-722. doi: 10.1002/dev.21524. Epub 2017 May 5.


Being born at an extremely low birth weight (ELBW; <1,000 grams) is presumed to reflect a suboptimal intrauterine environment and thus presents an opportunity for examining developmental programming hypotheses. Interfacing prenatal programming and differential susceptibility hypotheses, we tested whether individuals with ELBW in different childhood rearing environments showed different attention biases to positive and negative facial emotions in adulthood. Using the oldest known, prospectively followed cohort of ELBW survivors, we found that relative to normal birth weight controls (NBW; >2,500 grams), ELBW survivors displayed the highest and lowest attention bias to happy faces at age 30-35, depending on whether their total family income at age 8 was relatively low (environmental match) or high (environmental mismatch), respectively. This bias to happy faces was associated with a reduced likelihood of emotional problems. Findings suggest that differential susceptibility to positive emotions may be prenatally programmed, with effects lasting into adulthood. We discuss implications for integrating prenatal programming and differential susceptibility hypotheses, and the developmental origins of postnatal plasticity and resilience.

Keywords: attention bias; developmental programming; differential susceptibility; extremely low birth weight; happiness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attentional Bias / physiology*
  • Birth Weight / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Happiness*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Extremely Low Birth Weight
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Socioeconomic Factors