Legacy Set Point

David Lykken set the standards for students and for his prefession

David Lykken
DAVID LYKKEN NEVER BOASTED about the worldwide acclaim he gained for his research on human cognition and behavior. But when it came to his students, he could hardly contain his pride.

"He was constantly bragging about his students and their accomplishments," recalls his son Joe. "He understood that students are perhaps the most important legacy you can leave behind as a scientist."

Lykken, who died in September at age 78 after a half-century career at the University of Minnesota, is being honored with a new fellowship that will support future generations of students. The fellowship, established by the Lykken family and the University, will support graduate students in clinical sciences and psychopathology in the Department of Psychology. A fundraising effort will kick off this spring with a symposium in honor of Lykken.

The award reflects Lykken's view that bright people can do great work if they're given the right resources. "He valued independence tremendously," says William Iacono, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, longtime colleague, and former student. "He felt that what a mentor really needed to do was turn people loose and let them show what they could do."

Lykken's University career spanned -- and spawned -- a remarkable range of discoveries in psychophysiology and behavior genetics. His Ph.D. thesis on psychopathology remains one of the most influential works in the field. He was also one of the fore-fathers of the famous Minnesota Twins Study. He earned renown most recently for his "set-point" theory of happiness.

In his book Happiness: What Studies on Twins Show Us About Nature, Nurture, and the Happiness Set Point, Lykken proposes that we may indeed be born to be happy or unhappy. Our natural baseline of cheerfulness and contentment, he says, is to a large extent genetically determined.

Perhaps thanks to his own remarkably elevated set point -- and his relentless intellectual curiosity -- Lykken continued working after his retirement in 1998. He submitted his last article shortly before his death. "My dad always said the great thing about psychology is there are important problems that are simple and obvious just waiting for someone to take them up and investigate them," says Joe Lykken. "His first piece of advice to anybody coming into psychology would be: look around at all the wonderful things in this field that nobody has thought about."

The new fellowship will enable new generations of psychologists to think long and hard about those wonderful things. It also will promote other signature features of Lykken's work: both scientific rigor and usefulness in the world.

"He believed that the University should serve the community that feeds it," says his son Matt. "Professors should be out in the community and using their skills and knowledge to make the world a better place."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 26, 2008 7:32 PM.

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