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* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


Does Happiness Come from Our Genes or Environment?

"The Impact of Environmental Experiences Across the Lifespan on Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression."

Kendler, K., et. al. Psychological Science, publication forthcoming.

Though we all experience our fair share of emotional ups and downs, research suggests that people tend to return to a relatively stable “set point” of well-being—the basic level of happiness they maintain day in and day out. But different people have different set points. How are these levels determined? This study explored whether genetic forces or pivotal life experiences play a larger role in predicting our set point. Researchers examined identical twins over a period of several years and found that their set points differed from one another. Since twins share the same genetic material, this result suggests that our environment can strongly affect our overall psychological well-being. The researchers argue that happiness is therefore self-perpetuating: Happy people tend to seek out experiences that will sustain their good mood. —Carmen Sobczak

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Losing Your Train of Thought Could Be a Good Thing

"Sticky Thoughts: Depression and Rumination are Associated with Difficulties in Manipulating Emotional Material in Working Memory"

Joormann, J., Levens, S., Gotlib, I. Psychological Science, Vol. 22 (8), August 2011.

What enables some people to let go of negative thoughts while others become fixated on the negative, sometimes spiraling into depression? This study suggests that “cognitive flexibility”—the ability to monitor and control our thoughts—may be a crucial factor. Researchers gave participants a computerized task that required them to manipulate the order of positive, negative, or neutral words. The depressed participants had the most difficulty with the task, particularly when presented with negative words, suggesting that they didn’t have strong cognitive flexibility—their brains got stuck on the negative. The researchers suggest that depressed people get lost in recurring negative thoughts and have difficulty switching to a new train of thought, which contributes to their depression. So the next time you feel a stream of negativity coming on, try to step back and shift your focus—over time, it might do wonders for your mental health. —Raymond Firmalino

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