Update, April 2015
I continue to find Lyubomirsky's work on happiness tremendously insightful, and I'll be using chapters from The How of Happiness and her more recent book, The Myths of Happiness, in my course on self-coaching at Stanford this Spring. But further exploration of this topic in recent years has helped me realize that some of my comments below from 2009 are inaccurate or flat-out wrong.
My fundamental error was misunderstanding Lyubomirsky's discussion of the sources of happiness. The widely cited "pie chart" from The How of Happiness (alluded to in the cover image above and reproduced here) should correctly be understood as representing the amount of variance in happiness among individuals in Lyubomirsky's research that can be predicted by heritable traits, life circumstances, and intentional activities.
My comments below give the impression that this chart represents the relative amounts of happiness that are derived from these sources for individuals in the population at large. But this research does not (and cannot) tell us how much of a given individual's happiness is derived from each of these sources.
One misunderstanding of percent of variance figures applied to the causes of human happiness is that the numbers are presented as though they apply to individuals. In other words, 45% [of] an individual's happiness is said to come from inborn temperament, 12% from demographics, and so forth. The percent figures are derived, however, from the amount of variance between individuals that is "explained" or predicted by specific variables. These numbers tell us little about the absolute importance of the variables, because people in a sample may or may not differ to the same degree on each of them, and they do not tell us how individuals would change in well-being if they were to change on these variables. It is inappropriate to interpret the figures as applying to how much an individual's subjective well-being is derived from the various causes because the numbers are derived from variation between people in specific samples. The percents might be interpreted to mean that if one were to improve one's demographics from terrible to great, one's happiness might increase by 12%, but this is a misunderstanding of what the figures mean. It is important to recognize that the percent of variance between individuals, due to various causes of happiness, depends on the range and variation between people on this factor and has no necessary connection to what might be important to altering a person's happiness. [page 497]
Happiness is sometimes said to be about one-half heritable, but this statement can be easily misunderstood. It is a descriptive statistic based on particular samples in particular life circumstances and might not apply to other samples--for example, ones in which life circumstances are more variable across people. That is, the "heritability" of happiness is not constant across samples. This point surprises some people because they do not realize that heritability is not the same as genetic effects.
Pie-chart numbers sometimes lead researchers to view some variables as more important than other variables, and this is often mistaken. Furthermore, these figures are sometimes offered to the public as a guide to what might be the most worthwhile to change in order to achieve greater happiness. However, the causes for change in an individual's happiness might diverge from what causes differences in happiness between individuals. For instance, one person might gain an enormous boost in happiness from becoming religious, even if the amount of individual differences in happiness due to religion in a population is modest. The pie-chart way of thinking is seductive, because it is clear and simple, but it can easily lead us to think about the causes of subjective well-being in misguided ways. [pages 498-499]
The percent of variance figures derived from sample statistics do not apply to individuals. [page 499]
One of the frequently cited conclusions from positive psychology research is that happiness results from a combination of genetics, circumstances, and voluntary activities. This is reasonable enough. Indeed, it is a virtual tautology that applies to most any human characteristic.
Some positive psychologists go further and propose a happiness formula, typically a weighted sum of its components, with weights based on research with large samples of individuals. A representative set of weights is 50% genetics, 10% circumstances, and 40% voluntary activities. Again, this is reasonable enough, reflecting the research literature as I read it, although the exact weights are always a function of the samples from which they are derived.
So where am I going? To the conclusion that it is thoroughly unreasonable to think that we can parse the happiness of an individual, in the moment or in general, in the same way that we can parse the happiness of samples of individuals. [page 71, emphasis original]
It is not clear to me whether positive psychology authors who present such formulas intend these formulas and their weights to apply to individual people or to the specific moments of happiness that individuals experience. I do know that their readers often make these leaps because I encounter this notion with incredible frequency among my students who have read popular trade books on happiness. I spend a lot of time trying to explain heritability to them. [page 73]
To Peterson's last point, Razib Khan provides a helpful discussion of heritability:
When someone tells you that height is 80% heritable, does that mean:
a) 80% of the reason you are the height you are is due to genes
b) 80% of the variation within the population on the trait of height is due to variation of the genes
The answer is of course b. Unfortunately in the 5 years I’ve been blogging the conception of heritability has been rather difficult to get across, and I regularly have to browbeat readers who conflate the term with a. That is, they assume that if I say that a trait is mostly heritable I mean that its development is mostly a function of genes. In reality not only is that false, it’s incoherent. Heritability is addressing the population level correlation between phenotypic variation and genotypic variation. In other words, how well can genetic variation work as a proxy for phenotypic variation? What proportion of the phenotypic variation can be accounted for by genotypic variation?
Note that in the text of The How of Happiness Lyubomirsky is typically quite careful to specify that the research she's discussing predicts the variance in sources of happiness among individuals, not the relative weight of those sources for a given individual. That said, the book's presentation of the "pie chart" with the label "What Determines Happiness?" contributes to the misunderstanding that Diener and Peterson warn against.
Also, in some cases the book makes statements that can be misinterpreted. For example, in Chapter 2 Lyubomirsky writes, "As we can see from the pie chart, changes in our circumstances, no matter how positive and stunning, actually have little bearing on our well-being." [page 40] This would appear to be accurate with regard to the variance in the sample, but it can easily be read as advice to an individual, in which case it may well be entirely wrong for any given person. To be clear, I'm not blaming Lyubomirsky for my misunderstanding--a more careful reading at the time would have allowed me to avoid these mistakes.
Given these clarifications (as well as further reading elsewhere), here's an overview of my current understanding of this research:
- Happiness matters. Relative to unhappy people, happy people do better on any number of measures, from income to longevity.
- More happiness isn't necessarily better. (As Peterson notes, while the happiest people are more successful at close relationships, people who are slightly less happy--although not unhappy--are more successful at work and in school. [page 69])
- We've traditionally understood happiness as a function of life circumstances, such as income. This view overlooks two important sources of happiness: genetics and intentional activities.
- Our life circumstances--including income--may matter less than we think. Life circumstances predict relatively little of the difference in happiness between individuals in much of the research, although the role life circumstances play in the happiness of any given individual will vary substantially.
- There is a correlation between income and life satisfaction, but this does not imply causation. There is also a point of diminishing returns, although the precise inflection point varies from study to study. (As Diener notes, the relationship between money and happiness is complicated and still not fully understood. [pages 499-503].)
- Hedonic adaptation (noted below and discussed at length in Lyubomirsky, pages 48-52) diminishes the impact of life circumstances on our happiness over time, although changes in our circumstances may alter our baseline level of happiness. The specific impact of any changes and of our ability to adapt to them will vary for any given individual, but it's worth noting that our traditional narrative about the sources of happiness and their longevity are often incorrect.
- Our genes do play a role in our happiness, but even our "set point" is not fixed. (Diener has more to say on this topic, and he notes that "'set point' is not destiny." [pages 494-496])
- Intentional activities are an often overlooked source of happiness. These are the "happiness strategies" discussed by Lyubomirsky, and they predict a significant amount of the difference in happiness between individuals in much of the research, although, again, this will vary for any given individual.
- Although our genetic set point isn't permanently fixed, due to the impact of our environment and developmental experiences on which genes are expressed and how, our genes are, obviously, predetermined. And although life circumstances do have an impact on our happiness, 1) that impact may be substantially less (and shorter-lasting) than we imagine it to be, and 2) changes in life circumstances are often difficult and occasionally impossible to bring about through deliberate effort. In contrast, small-scale, intentional activities may have a much larger impact on our happiness than we imagine, and by definition they are easy to put into practice.
- Consequently, many people may find that engaging in some of these intentional activities have a surprisingly large (and persistent) impact on their happiness. We all respond differently to various activities, so it's important to choose the right ones, and here Lyubomirsky's Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic is a useful tool.
I'm not going to revamp the 2009 post below, but the initial passage (up to the list of intentional activities) needs to be read with these clarifications in mind. I believe the remainder of the post--a discussion of how I experimented with various happiness strategies--remains a useful resource as an example of how others might do the same after determining which activities would be best suited to meet their needs
What makes us happy? How can we become happier? And is happiness sustainable? These are the fundamental questions Sonja Lyubomirsky addresses in The How of Happiness, subtitled "A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want." (Note: This is a relatively long post, so if you find it more convenient to read in print form, here's a PDF version [236 KB].) [April 2015: I'm not going to add the update above to the PDF version, so I've removed it.]
Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside who's devoted her career as a research scientist to studying happiness, believes that our individual level of happiness springs from three primary sources:
A) Our Genetic Set Point
Fifty percent of our happiness derives from a genetically determined "set point," Lyubomirsky writes:
The set point for happiness is similar to the set point for weight. Some people are blessed with skinny dispositions: Even when they're not trying, they easily maintain their weight. By contrast, others have to work extraordinarily hard to keep their weight at a desirable level, and the moment they slack off even a bit, the pounds creep back on.
So those of us with low happiness set points will have to work harder to achieve and maintain happiness, while those of us with high set points will find it easier to be happy under similar conditions.
B) Our Life Circumstances
"Life circumstances" determine a scant 10% of our happiness, Lyubomirsky continues:
[O]nly about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations--that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc. If with a magic wand we could put [a group of people] into the same set of circumstances (same house, same spouse, same place of birth, same face, same aches and pains), the differences in their happiness levels would be reduced by a measly 10 percent.
Lyubomirsky notes that this finding runs contrary to many of our efforts to obtain happiness:
One of the great ironies of our quest to become happier is that so many of us focus on changing the circumstances of our lives in the misguided hope that those changes will deliver happiness... An impressive body of research now shows that trying to be happy by changing our life situations ultimately will not work.
Why do life changes account for so little? Because of a very powerful force that psychologists call hedonic adaptation...
Human beings are remarkably adept at becoming rapidly accustomed to sensory or physiologic changes. When you walk in from the bitter cold, the warmth of the crackling fire feels heavenly at first, but you quickly get used to it and may even become overheated... This experience is labeled physiological or sensory adaptation. The same phenomenon, however, occurs with hedonic shifts--that is, relocation, marriages, job changes--that make you happier for a time, but only a short time...
Human beings adapt to favorable changes in wealth, housing, and possessions, to being beautiful or being surrounded by beauty, to good health, and even to marriage...
Although we may achieve temporary boosts in well-being by moving to new parts of the country, securing raises, or changing our appearances, such boosts are unlikely to be long-lasting. The primary reason...is that people readily and rapidly adapt to positive circumstantial changes
The implication is that almost all efforts to increase and maintain happiness through changes in life circumstances are doomed to fail. Even the most positive changes will eventually be taken for granted as we adapt to them, and their long-term impact on our happiness will be minimal.
C) Intentional Activities
The remaining 40% of our happiness is determined by our behavior--intentional activities that we might call "happiness strategies." This is the core of Lyubomirsky's thesis: We can't alter our genetic set points, and changes in life circumstances don't have a lasting impact on our happiness, but we can increase and sustain our happiness through intentional activities:
If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our intentional effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effect of our set points and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If an unhappy person wants to experience interest, enthusiasm, contentment, peace and joy, he or she can make it happen by learning the habits of a happy person.
The bulk of "The How of Happiness" is devoted to exploring a dozen (well, actually 14*) activities described by Lyubomirsky as "evidence-based happiness-increasing strategies whose practice is supported by scientific research." These include:
1. Expressing Gratitude
2. Cultivating Optimism
3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
5. Nurturing Social Relationships
6. Developing Strategies for Coping
7. Learning to Forgive
8. Increasing Flow Experiences
9. Savoring Life's Joys
10. Committing to Your Goals
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
12. Taking Care of Your Body:
Acting Like a Happy Person
(* I'm not sure why Lyubomirsky treats the final three "Taking Care of Your Body" activities as a single strategy. There's clearly a relationship among them, but they're also sufficiently distinct to merit separate consideration. Perhaps 12 just feels better than 14.)
Lyubomirsky describes precisely what these somewhat generic terms mean in this context, provides a rationale for why they work (typically drawing upon examples from her research), and explores what they might look like in practice. She doesn't say that these are the only meaningful happiness strategies, but separately they meet her standard for being "evidenced-based," and together they constitute a list sufficiently broad "so that every individual could find a set right for him or her."
And Lyubomirsky believes it's essential to choose happiness strategies that best address the sources of our unhappiness, that take greatest advantage of our strengths, talents and goals, and that can be adapted most readily to our needs and lifestyle. She offers a Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic and encourages readers to focus on the four strategies with the highest "fit scores."
So What About MY Happiness?
Over the past year I've felt increasingly happy, and at the moment I believe I'm happier than I've ever been. Some of this has to do with my life circumstances--I've been blessed with a rich and rewarding marriage, I love my work, and I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But according to Lyubomirsky, all this has far less of an impact on my happiness than my daily behavior, the intentional activities that I pursue on a regular basis.
Although I began reading "The How of Happiness" because of a project at work, it's been a very personal experience as well. At the beginning of 2008 I realized that I wasn't as happy as I wanted to be, and I decided to do something about it. I hadn't yet come across Lyubomirsky's research about the importance of intentional activities, but it seemed self-evident to me that I needed to do more things that made me happier in order to be happier, and that's just what I experienced over the course of the year.
In December I became involved with a team that was working on a new class at Stanford, and each member of the team had to read several books as part of our background research. As I reviewed the list of possible texts, I was immediately drawn to "The How of Happiness," and while reading it I was struck by the parallels between the conclusions she had drawn from her academic research and my own experiences. And although I've always had an intuitive sense about the value of intentional activity, now I'm trying to apply Lyubomirsky's findings on "happiness strategies" to my own life even more deliberately.
According to Lyubomirsky's "Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic," the four best happiness strategies for me, in order, are: Increasing Flow Experiences and Taking Care of Your Body (both tied for first), Practicing Acts of Kindness and Expressing Gratitude.
Increasing Flow Experiences
First, what do we mean by "flow experiences"? The concept of "flow" was initially developed by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced "cheek-SENT-me-high"), currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as:
[A] sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time appears distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
My good friend Doug Edwards, currently working on a dissertation in philosophy that touches on flow, describes the concept this way:
[A] person 'in flow' is absorbed in what he is doing. All of his attention is concentrated on his activity, and his activity proceeds in a seamless, spontaneous, adept way, creating a sense of fluidity in one's action.
A key aspect of flow, according to Csíkszentmihályi, is its impact on the self:
In our studies, we found that every flow activity...had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex.
The mechanism underlying this process of transformation is our desire to avoid the unpleasant states of anxiety and boredom. In a flow experience, our skills are "adequate to cope with the challenges at hand," creating a sense of balance. But if our skills increase relative to the challenges being posed, the balance tips, and we eventually become bored. If the challenges ramp up while our skills remain static, the balance tips in the opposite direction, and we feel anxious. To avoid anxiety and boredom, then, we must increase our skills (in the first case) or tackle bigger challenges (in the second case)--and in both cases, we're transformed.
Lyubomirsky, who cites Csíkszentmihályi as an important influence, believes that experiencing flow offers several specific benefits:
Why is flow good for you? The first reason is obvious: because it is inherently pleasurable and fulfilling, and the enjoyment you obtain is generally of the type that is lasting and reinforcing... Second, because flow states are intrinsically rewarding, we naturally want to repeat them...[but]... to maintain flow, we continually have to test ourselves in ever more challenging activities... We have to stretch our skills or find novel opportunities to use them. This is wonderful, because it means that we are constantly striving, growing, learning and becoming more competent, expert, and complex.
The experience of flow leads us to be involved in life (rather than be alienated from it), to enjoy activities (rather than to find them dreary), to have a sense of control (rather than helplessness), and to feel a strong sense of self (rather than unworthiness). All these factors imbue life with meaning and lend it a richness and intensity. And happiness.
OK, now that I understand the concept and its likely positive impact on my happiness, how do I actually experience flow? Lyubomirsky offers several suggestions: Control your attention in order to be "fully engaged and involved" in a given activity, adopt values of openness to new experiences and lifelong learning, heighten awareness of flow experiences and strive to repeat them, and seek out challenges in your recreation and your work.
These all sound potentially rewarding, but they also seem incomplete. My sense is that flow results not only from 1) my intentional activities and attitude, but also 2) my ability to "drop into" a flow state in a given moment and 3) specific aspects of the external environment which make it more (or less) conducive to flow experiences. Lyubomirsky's suggestions address the first element but neglect the other two, and I think it's important to bear them in mind as well.
The most intense flow experience I ever had came on a 40-mile stretch of Utah's Route 14, headed west from Long Valley Junction to Cedar City:
I was in the middle of a long motorcycle trip in the summer of 1995 with my friend Doug Edwards, mentioned above. Shortly before we reached Long Valley Junction--which was just an empty highway intersection in the middle of a desert valley--we'd been passed by a group of riders on Harleys. But soon we saw the Harleys headed back toward us--they had apparently missed the turnoff for Route 14 and had doubled back. We reached the intersection and turned west just before they did. The road ahead was a winding, twisty track through the mountains, and I was suddenly seized by an intense desire to ride fast, outrun the Harleys and beat them to Cedar City. And that's just what we did. For the next 40 miles--I have no idea how much time it took--I was totally absorbed in the process of riding fast. I felt such a sense of "oneness" with the motorcycle, even with the road, that I didn't feel like a conscious person on a vehicle but like an organic component of an integrated system. Rather than thinking and making decisions, I was simply acting, reacting, being. And as we emerged from the mountains, drifting down toward Cedar City on a long straightway, I popped back into consciousness and thought, "What the hell just happened?"
In retrospect, I see this as a classic flow experience, and I believe it was so intense not only because of my intentional activity and attitude (as per Lyubomirsky's suggestions), but also because I was able to drop into a flow state more readily than usual (because my riding skills had been heightened over the course of the long journey, and the experience of riding fast had become second nature) and because the external environment (the challenging road, the risk of crashing, the "pursuing" Harleys) was so highly conducive to flow. In Csíkszentmihályi's words, I was fully immersed in a "goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing."
But I don't find myself riding a motorcycle through the mountains all that often--in fact, I've more or less quit riding (although my bike is still in the back of my garage.) So how do I experience flow more frequently? These days I'm finding it not at high speeds but while hanging nearly motionless a few feet above the ground at the Stanford Climbing Wall. I'm not a skilled rock climber, but that's fine--it's sufficiently challenging for me just trying to make it around the perimeter of the wall on the easy "traverse" route (the climbing equivalent of a Bunny Slope at a ski resort.)
I started climbing last summer, but found it too physically taxing to go regularly. So I spent the rest of the year getting into better shape--more on that below--and just began climbing again recently. I still can't do it too often--my muscles can take the strain, but my joints still ache afterwards--but that's fine. I'm not interested in becoming an expert climber--I just want to be able to stop by once or twice a week, boulder around the wall, and lose myself for 30 or 45 minutes.
I think climbing is so conducive to flow because, once again, it's a "goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing." The stakes are pretty low in this case--success means advancing a few more holds along a given route, while failure means falling a few feet onto a cushioned floor. But what matters is that my (novice) skills are appropriately balanced with the (modest) challenges posed by the wall's "traverse" route. I suppose I'll get better over time, but I'm not in any hurry. And--to the point of this essay--I absolutely feel happier after climbing.
Taking Care of Your Body
As noted above, I don't know why Lyubomirsky treats three related-but-different activities--Meditation, Physical Activity and Acting Like a Happy Person--as a single strategy. The fact that "Taking Care of Your Body" is one of my best-fit happiness strategies poses a dilemma: Must I pursue all three elements of the strategy to reap its benefits, or can I pick and choose from among them?
Meditation: Lyubomirsky cites substantial research that demonstrates the benefits of meditation and its "positive effects on a person's happiness and positive emotions, on physiology, on stress, cognitive abilities, and physical health..." And she provides a simple, straightforward guide to the process--"How to Meditate in Fewer Than Three Hundred Words." But sitting still does not come easily to me, and meditation has always felt like an unpleasant chore rather than an opportunity for personal growth. I used to practice a yoga routine that ended with a period of meditation, and although I occasionally experience moments of reflective peace, I usually found myself feeling like a kid in detention hall, waiting until the clock set me free.
I fully appreciate the importance of the elements of meditation articulated by Lyubomirsky: Be nonjudgmental, be nonstriving, be patient, be trusting, be open, and let go. I recognize many ways in which my ability to embody these values has enhanced my life--and many ways in which my failure to do so continues to hold me back. Finally, I'm well aware that my resistance to the practice only means that I have that much more to gain from it. But I still can't bring myself to actually do it on a regular basis. Let's see how I'm doing with the other elements.
Physical Activity: In contrast to my difficulties sitting still, I have no problem getting up and moving around. The graphic below, from my Don't Break the Chain account, shows the days I exercised last year marked in red. It's not entirely accurate, because I wasn't using it in January or February, but once I started keeping track of my workouts, I exercised nearly 2 out of every 3 days (and it would have been closer to 3 out of every 4 if I hadn't let work get the best of me in May.)
I was an active kid and an athlete in high school, but my relatively high level of fitness created a false sense of security in adulthood. I found that I could be inactive for a few months and then suddenly return to regular activity without suffering serious consequences--but this all changed last year. I loved my work at Stanford, but I had allowed it to consume me and had stopped exercising entirely throughout all of 2007. I had gained weight and was probably in the worst shape of my life. I decided to get active again at the beginning of 2008, but I went too fast and hurt my knee on a long, hard run. My 40-year-old body wasn't cooperating like it had in the past, and if I was going to be active at all, I needed to let my knee heal, ease into a sustainable routine, and maintain it assiduously. I've been able to do that successfully over the last year, and the keys have been:
1) Variety: I almost never do the same thing 2 days in a row.
2) Novelty: I've worked several brand-new activities into my routine, such as rock-climbing (see above) and swimming. I also try to hike someplace entirely new in the Bay Area each month. (Many thanks to Jane Huber.)
3) Consistency: It was shortly after I was able to return to regular activity that I discovered Don't Break the Chain, which turned out to be a surprisingly a powerful motivator to do something, anything, on a given day, just to keep filling up that calendar.
4) Humility: I'm old--or at least no longer young. And that means that I simply can't do all the things I used to, and I need to listen to my body when it says "No." Sometimes that means no lifting or climbing or swimming when my shoulders hurt, and sometimes it means no running when my knees hurt, and sometimes it just means take the whole damn day off and have a drink.
I've clearly had no problem sticking with this strategy, and it most definitely has had a positive impact on my happiness, but why? As with meditation, Lyubomirsky cites extensive research that documents the benefits of physical activity:
Psychologists believe that several explanations underlie the well-being rewards of exercise. First is the self-esteem/mastery explanation... Taking up a sport or fitness regime makes you feel in control of your body and your health. Seeing yourself get better at something...provides a terrific sense of agency and self-worth. Second is the possibility that physical activity offers potential for flow as well as a positive distraction that turns away worries and ruminations. It essentially serves as a time-out from your stressful day, with positive spillover for hours afterward... Third, physical activity, when performed along with others, can provide opportunities for social contact, thus potentially bolstering social support and reinforcing friendships.
I've certainly benefited from the first two effects of physical activity, and the correlation with flow experiences helps to explain the particular appeal of something like climbing. I tend to exercise alone, so I haven't found it a source of social contact, but given the very people-intensive nature of my work and the fact that "Nurturing Relationships" wasn't identified by Lyubomirsky's diagnostic as a key strategy for me, that hasn't posed a problem.
Lyubomirsky notes that "exercise may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities," and I believe that being physically active has had the largest impact on my happiness over the past year of any of my intentional "happiness strategies."
Acting Like A Happy Person: Lyubomirsky writes:
Remarkably, pretending that you're happy--smiling, engaged, mimicking energy and enthusiasm--not only can earn you some of the benefits of happiness (returned smiles, strengthened friendships, successes at work and school) but can actually make you happier. In poet Marge Piercy's words, "Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen."
(This quote reminds me of St. Ignatius Loyola: "Perform the acts of faith, and faith will come." A paraphrase of his Spiritual Exercises, which seems to find its way into my writing on a regular basis.)
Why does this work? How can acting happy make you happy? Lyubomirsky's explanation focuses primarily on two feedback loops, one internal and one external. Internally, our brains interpret the physical manifestations of happiness--our smile, our posture, our tone of voice--as the emotion itself, and we actually experience the emotion to a greater extent. Externally, our manifestations of happiness are typically mirrored by others, creating a cycle of positive emotions.
Lyubomirsky is careful to note that the impact of these factors is modest, but it's real nonetheless: "[S]miling and laughter--even the insincere 'I don't want to pose for this photo' smile or 'This joke's not that funny' chuckle--gives rise to a mild feeling of well-being."
But despite its modest impact, this strategy seems to me the very essence of the concept that underlies Lyubomirsky's thesis: We don't always act a certain way because we feel a certain way; at times (and perhaps most of the time), we feel a certain way because we're acting a certain way.
In applying this strategy, I think there are two important points to keep in mind: First, "acting," by definition, implies a certain degree of conscious effort that can come dangerously close to inauthenticity. How close is too close? At what point do you stop increasing your happiness and start looking like a damn fool? Clearly, there's no bright, shining line distinguishing helpful, intentional behavior from counterproductive naivete.
And second, "acting happy" doesn't mean "pretending pain and sadness don't exist," in yourself or in others. Candide is not a role model, and we need to make room for the healthy acknowledgment and expression of the pain and sadness we experience.
But despite--or because of--these cautionary notes, I have found it helpful to strive to express and convey my happiness more vividly.
Practicing Acts of Kindness
According to Lyubomirsky's diagnostic, this is the third-best "happiness strategy" for me. She writes in "The How of Happiness":
From a very early age we are inculcated with the idea that kindness and compassion are important virtues. Of course we are taught to develop and apply these virtues for their own sakes, because by definition, it is the right, good, and ethical thing to do. What scientific research has recently contributed to this agelong principle is evidence that practicing acts of kindness is not only good for the recipient but also good for the doer... [B]eing generous and willing to share makes people happy.
The reasons for this, according to Lyubomirsky, are that performing acts of kindness leads us to see others in a better light, creates a stronger sense of community, diminishes negative feelings of guilt or distress, encourages a sense of appreciation for your own circumstances, causes you to view yourself as "an altruistic and compassionate person," and, perhaps most importantly, "jump-start[s] a cascade of positive social consequences. Helping others leads people to like you, to appreciate you, to offer gratitude."
All this said, Lyubomirsky cautions that kindness must be expressed in some specific ways in order to increase your happiness: "If you do too little, you won't obtain much benefit in happiness. If you do too much, you may end up feeling overburdened, angry or fatigued." She recommends choosing one day a week and on that day "commit one new and special large act of kindness or, alternatively, three to five little ones. I say 'new and special' because...the kindness strategy calls for something extra, something that pulls you out of your routine."
I think of myself as a kind person (who doesn't?), but I also recognize that I tend to express kindness in ways that come easily to me. I feel compassion and empathy and convey encouragement and support readily--that's one reason why I believe I'm an effective coach. But expressing these feelings is, in a sense, part of my "routine." And although my work as a coach is deeply rewarding and allows me to feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment, I suspect that I'll need to find other "new and special" ways of expressing kindness in order for this strategy to have an impact on my happiness.
The success I've already experienced with the strategies noted above encourages me to take this one seriously as well, but I'm not entirely sure what "new and special" acts of kindness will look like in practice. Volunteering? Donations to a worthy cause? (Perhaps the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has some suggestions.)
Finally, this is the fourth strategy recommended for me by Lyubomirsky's diagnostic. In "The How of Happiness," she quotes Robert Emmons' definition of "gratitude":
[A] felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.
Lyubomirsky cites extensive research showing a causal link between expressions of gratitude and a sense of well-being, and she notes 8 specific ways in which gratitude increases happiness: Gratitude "promotes the savoring of positive life experiences," "bolsters self-worth and self-esteem," helps us cope with stress more effectively, fosters attitudes of helpfulness and appreciation, "build[s] social bonds," minimizes social comparison, diminishes negative emotions, and, most importantly, "helps us thwart hedonic adaptation" [which allows us to extract greater and longer-lasting feelings of well-being from the positive aspects of our life circumstances].
But just like acts of kindness, expressions of gratitude must be conducted in specific ways to have the greatest impact on our happiness. Lyubomirsky notes that gratitude can be expressed in many forms, but she stresses two key aspects of the practice that maximize happiness: First, "keep the gratitude strategy fresh by varying it and not overpracticing it." For example, her research suggests that, for the average person, writing in a "gratitude journal" once a week (rather than daily) is likely to yield the most significant results.
And second, expressing gratitude directly to another person--"by phone, letter, or face-to-face"--is particularly effective--so much so that Lyubomirsky's own research showed that "simply writing a gratitude letter and not sending...it was enough to produce substantial boosts in happiness."
Unlike "new and special" acts of kindness, expressing gratitude is a strategy that comes naturally to me, presumably because I've developed such a deep sense of gratitude in recent years. In 2007, my wife and I lost several family members. Counting colleagues who also lost loved ones and friends, we've been connected to nearly a dozen deaths since that time. In some cases these deaths were expected and even welcome releases from suffering, but most of them were surprising, even shocking. More than anything else, this association with death and the palpable feeling of my own mortality has fostered a deep sense of appreciation for my continued existence.
And I've found myself expressing that gratitude both internally and to others on a regular basis. I don't keep a formal "gratitude journal," but at least every few days I'm compelled to stop and reflect deeply on how thankful I am for something--for my health, my marriage, a beautiful view, even just the bracing first sip of a well-made Martini. But I've also made it a habit to express my thankfulness to others. For example, at the end of the year I wrote thank-you letters to several dozen colleagues at Stanford, expressing my appreciation for their contributions. It was a time-consuming effort, but it felt great, and many of them told me how good my letter made them feel in return.
Second only to physical activity, expressing gratitude has had a tremendous impact on my happiness, and it's been even easier to implement.
I've discussed Lyubomirsky's overarching thesis that 40% of our happiness is derived from intentional activities, and I've explored in detail the 4 happiness strategies recommended for me by her diagnostic. I have yet to implement all of them, but I've been practicing several of them for the past year, long before encountering "The How of Happiness," and I'm convinced that Lyubomirsky is right: We can identify activities that will make us happier on a sustainable basis.
If the 4 strategies I've discussed above don't resonate with you, I encourage you to buy the book and take the diagnostic yourself to determine if any of the other 8 strategies might be a better fit.
Three final points: First, Lyubomirsky is quick to recognize the distinction between unhappiness and clinical depression, and she notes in the book's postscript that "although a program to become happier can positively be attempted by those who are depressed, relief from depression is not what this book promises." The recognition that our intentional activities can have a substantial impact on our happiness in no way implies that those who suffer from depression can simply will themselves to well-being and mental health.
Second, although I believe Lyubomirsky's conclusions are generally valid, I don't accept every point she makes in the book. For example, one of the strategies she recommends to help people minimize counterproductive ruminating is the "Stop!" technique, "in which you think, say or even shout to yourself, 'Stop!' or 'No!' when you find yourself resuming overthinking." This is actually not recommended by experts in treating anxiety disorders, such as Robert Leahy, author of The Worry Cure, and in some cases this technique can make things worse. Although Lyubomirsky's work as a research scientist allows her to bring a great deal of useful data to bear on "The How of Happiness," there were times when I wanted to hear from a practitioner, such as a clinical psychologist or an executive coach, to get a different perspective.
And third, the work done by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues in the field of "happiness studies" (which we might view as an offshoot of positive psychology) is rooted in the idea that happiness can be objectively measured--and yet the primary instrument used to assess happiness is known as the Subjective Happiness Scale. I don't believe this invalidates Lyubomirsky's conclusions, but it raises questions for me about the nature of happiness itself, the ways in which our personal experiences of happiness differ, and the extent to which happiness really can be measured. Philosophical questions like that are beyond the scope of this essay, but they're worth thinking about.
Many thanks to Sonja Lyubomirsky for a valuable work of scholarship that I believe deserves a wide audience and makes a lasting contribution to both science and society.