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Scientific analysis of morality

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

People have asked moral questions about the conduct of science, which has led to things like rules for how experiments should be conducted among other things. And psychologists have studied morality, beginning most notably with Lawrence Kohlberg who studied the structure of moral decision-making and came up with a hierarchical model with six stages of moral development based on reasoning about justice.

Recently psychologists who study happiness have come up with a few things related to morality that are interesting. I talked recently about the analysis of conservative and liberal morality undertaken by positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Another psychologist touched on the issue indirectly in a presentation at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2004. Dan Gilbert of Harvard University is an entertaining and informative speaker and author who recently published the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, a delightful read in which he explains that we’re not always very good at predicting what is actually going to make us happy.

In the video of the TED conference presentation below, professor Gilbert talks about some aspects of what really makes people happy, including what he calls “synthetic happiness.” A lot of it is up to us. Being in a frame of mind where you are second-guessing an earlier decision is not conducive to happiness; sometimes it’s better for choices to be bounded. On the other hand, the environmental circumstances people find themselves in are not nearly as important as most people assume, because we’re quite good at adapting to both good and bad circumstances. Think about it: so many people make a lot of effort to make money, get a nicer house, car, clothes, furniture, electronic gadgets, etc. And some people strain so much in pursuit of such things that they’re willing to fudge something, to bend the rules – perhaps even enough to regret it later if they’re really honest with themselves. Dr. Gilbert quotes Adam Smith as having expressed a “turgid truth” in his description of pursuing such situations:

“Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others; but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules of either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.”

Having that thing you wanted so much is probably not going to make you nearly as happy in the long run as you thought anyway. So if in order to get it you need to cheat or otherwise do something that makes you feel not quite as good about yourself later, why do it? There may be other, even better reasons not to do it, but I thought the fact that Gilbert’s studies and conclusions had shed some light on this reason was interesting.

Sonja Lyubomirsky and the How of Happiness

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

“Dr. Happiness” Ed Diener and Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky are two of the leading researchers on happiness. A funny thing happened the day after I wrote my last post, where I introduced Dr. Diener and talked about his Life Satisfaction Scale. I got an email from Dr. Ben Dean (who I’ll talk about in a minute) saying Dr. Diener “is considered to be the world’s leading authority on research on happiness” and inviting me to a conference-call interview of Dr. Diener and Dr. Lyubomirsky that night.

Both Ed Diener and Sonja Lyubomirsky have written popular books about happiness. Sonja’s book has been out for awhile now. I just did a search for “happiness” in the “books” section of, and it came up second. It’s called: The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. It’s a how-to book. In the Foreword, she says “To my knowledge, this is the first how-to-become-happier book authored by someone who has actually conducted research revealing how people can achieve a greater sense of happiness in their lives.

She’s certainly qualified to talk about happiness: she was awarded a Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2002, she’s an associate editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology, and she and Ken Sheldon have a 5-year million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

Just looking at the table of contents gives you an idea how much she has to offer:

Part One: How to Attain Real and Lasting Happiness

1. Is It Possible to Become Happier?

2. How Happy Are You and Why?

3. How to Find Happiness Activities That Fit Your Interests, Your Values, and Your Needs

Part Two: Happiness Activities

Foreword to Part Two: Before You Begin

4. Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking

5. Investing in Social Connections

6. Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma

7. Living in the Present

8. Happiness Activity No.10: Committing to Your Goals

9. Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul

Part Three: Secrets to Abiding Happiness

10. The Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness

The Promise of Abiding Happiness: An Afterword

Postscript: If You Are Depressed

Appendix: Additional Happiness Activities That May Fit

Dr. Lyubomirsky has found that happy people tend to perceive and interpret the world in ways that reinforce their happiness, and unhappy people do the reverse. Happy people respond in a more positive and adaptive way, while unhappy people tend to dwell or “ruminate” on negative or ambiguous events, draining cognitive resources and creating negative consequences.

She and her colleagues are investigating ways that happiness can be reliably and durably increased. They believe it can be done through intentional activities, but that these require “daily and concerted effort and commitment.” They are testing the effectiveness of gratitude exercises, “self-regulatory” and positive thinking about oneself (such as reflecting, writing, and talking about one’s happiest and unhappiest life events, or about one’s goals for the future), and practicing acts of kindness and altruism.

Popular how-to book on happiness by leading researcher

She talked about some of these things in the interview, and deals with how to apply some of them in practical ways in her book.

I want to talk about Ed Diener’s new book too, a bit more about the interview, and about Ben Dean’s work. But I think I’m going to have to break this up into several posts. In the meantime, take a look at Sonja’s book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Life Satisfaction – measure yours

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

Can “life satisfaction” be measured? How can a few questions be any kind of scientific measure of happiness, in the sense of my satisfaction with life?

Well, the “Satisfaction with Life Scale” below was developed by the man some call “Dr. Happiness,” who has studied this subject more than 25 years, who TIME magazine featured first among researchers in its January 17, 2005 special issue on happiness research. Dr. Ed Diener from the University of Illinois didn’t just make up five questions off the top of his head and call it a scientific instrument. There are a variety of ways to test such scales, and this one has been found to be valid (internally consistent, distinct) and reliable (stable) for both young and old.

Satisfaction with Life Scale

Try it yourself. Here are Dr. Diener’s instructions for taking the short survey questionnaire:

Below are five statements that you may agree or disagree with. Using the 1 – 7 scale below indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number on the line preceding that item. Please be open and honest in your responding.

7 – Strongly agree
6 – Agree
5 – Slightly agree
4 – Neither agree nor disgree
3 – Slightly disagree
2 – Disgree
1 – Strongly disgree

____ In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

____ The conditions of my life are excellent.

____ I am satisfied with my life.

____ So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

____ If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Add the numbers you wrote beside each of the five questions to get a total. See below.

  • 31 – 35 Extremely satisfied
  • 26 – 30 Satisfied
  • 21 – 25 Slightly satisfied
  • 20 Neutral
  • 15 – 19 Slightly dissatisfied
  • 10 – 14 Dissatisfied
  • 5 – 9 Extremely dissatisfied


We’ll be talking about the important issue of life satisfaction more in future posts. For now, make a list of things you are grateful for, if you haven’t already in conjunction with my “Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being” post. Think about your major activities and how they contribute to life satisfaction. For example, is there some improvement you could make to your work situation that would allow you to create more value? use your personal strengths more? help you get more involved in your work, get in the zone (find “flow”), and be more creative? or help you have a richer, fuller experience?

If on the other hand you are depressed or think you might be depressed, please pay it proper attention and get help. Among other benefits, overcoming depression is a key to life satisfaction; in a recent study, anxiety or anger had very little impact on life satisfaction compared to depression. Depression is a serious condition and should not be ignored.


Pavot, W., & Diener, E. (1993). Review of the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Psychological Assessment, 5, 164-172.

Schimmack, U., Oishi, S., Furr, B M., & Funder, D. C. (2004). Personality and life satisfaction: A facet level analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1062-1075.

*The Satisfaction with Life Scale is in the public domain (not copyrighted) and so can be used without permission and free of charge.