April’s issue of Scientific American has a couple of concise articles that are freely available online: one on the neuroscience of moral decisions, and the second on the science of lasting happiness.
In the first article, author Michael Shermer argues that moral decision-making is implemented in the brain in a similar way to most other forms of decision-making, and is likely a long-standing evolutionary trait.
The previous decade has seen an increased interest in ‘positive psychology‘ although many studies have focused on short-term happiness and satisfaction.
Lyubomirsky seems to be following a slightly different tack by looking at what influences long-term contentment.
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and another psychologist, David A. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego, put the existing findings together into a simple pie chart showing what determines happiness. Half the pie is the genetic set point. The smallest slice is circumstances, which explain only about 10 percent of people’s differences in happiness. So what is the remaining 40 percent? “Because nobody had put it together before, that’s unexplained,” Lyubomirsky says. But she believes that when you take away genes and circumstances, what is left besides error must be “intentional activity,” mental and behavioral strategies to counteract adaptation’s downward pull.
Lyubomirsky has been studying these activities in hopes of finding out whether and how people can stay above their set point. In theory, that is possible in much the same way regular diet and exercise can keep athletes’ weight below their genetic set points.