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* This new Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, compassion, altruism, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we read the research so you don’t have to!


Partner’s Photograph Can Reduce Pain

"A Picture's Worth: Partner Photographs Reduce Experimentally Induced Pain. "

Psychological Science. 20 (11), November 2009, 1316 – 1318.

In this study of social support, women felt something hot placed on their forearm. Women who were holding their boyfriend’s hand reported feeling less pain than women who held the hand of a stranger or squeezed a ball. What’s more, women who just looked at a picture of their boyfriend also reported less pain than when they saw a photo of a stranger or a chair. Something to keep in mind next time you’re at a doctor’s appointment or in another painful situation: Bring a loved one, or even just their photo. —Laura Saslow

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Falling Happiness in the Rising Economy of China

"The China Puzzle: Falling Happiness in a Rising Economy"

Journal of Happiness Studies. Vol 10(4), August, 2009, 387-405.

From 1990-2000, China experienced substantial economic growth and the standard of living there increased quickly. However, the happiness of people in China plummeted. The authors suggest that increasing income inequality is responsible: As some people became rich, the relative financial status of most Chinese families worsened, making members of those families increasingly dissatisfied with their financial position even though their actual income increased. The researchers conclude that rising inequality in rapidly changing economies may affect citizens’ happiness and overall quality of life. —Kat Saxton

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Prosocial Child

"Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations at a City-Wide Scale"

Evolution and Human Behavior. 30(3), May 2009, 190-200.

It takes a prosocial village to raise a prosocial child. The authors conducted a study of children in grades 6-12 in Binghamton, NY, to analyze the relationship between the support structures in a neighborhood and the amount of kind, helpful (or “prosocial”) behavior there. They examined census and survey data, along with the results of a “lost-letter” study, which measured the probability that a stamped letter left on the street reached its destination; the higher the probability, the higher they rated the neighborhood’s quality. They found that individual altruism and prosociality are strongly tied to neighborhood quality and the availability of multiple sources of neighborhood social support, from schools to religious institutions to parks. Other neighborhood factors, like wealth, did not appear to play a similarly important role. —Aaron Shaw

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Social Networks and the Effects of Unemployment

"Unemployment, Social Capital, and Subjective Well-Being"

Journal of Happiness Studies. Vol 10(4), Aug 2009, 421-430.

Are individuals with more social networks sheltered from the negative effects of unemployment? Researchers in Germany found that while “social capital” —the connections, levels of trust, and feelings of reciprocity one has with others—is an important predictor of well-being, there is no evidence that it reduces the negative effects of unemployment, such as lower life satisfaction, more negative emotion, and less positive emotion. —Erica Lee

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Defensive Pessimists Pursue Goals

"If You Plan, then You Can: How Reflection Helps Defensive Pessimists Pursue their Goals."

Motivation and Emotion. 32(2), June 2009, 203-216.

“Defensive pessimists” are pessimistic and anxious about the future, but they also tend to reflect and carefully think through their options for the future. This study found that they also put greater importance on goals, work harder toward those goals, have higher expectations for the outcomes of those goals, and are more likely to anticipate that they could be emotionally resilient to failure. So their ability to reflect and plan protects them against the usual negative effects of pessimism. As the authors note, for defensive pessimists, “If you plan, then you can.” —Laura Saslow

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