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IBorn Happy Editor’s note: This is a guest post from bestselling author and Psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky.

“To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.”
– William James, “father” of psychology


I have two friends, Mark and Brian, and one of them is a lot happier than the other.

Mark is chronically unhappy. He is often glum, frequently irritable, and sometimes hopeless, though he has never been clinically depressed. By contrast, Brian is a remarkably happy person. Although he has his low moments and periodic stress, he manages to find joy in his days and is quite content with the way his life is going. To understand why these two men are so different, let me tell you a little bit about them.

Both are in their early 40s and doing well in their careers. Brian is a professor of psychology at a prestigious university, who has reasonably bright students, a fair amount of autonomy in his work, and many opportunities for travel. His research program has been successful, garnering attention from all over the U.S. Mark is a deputy city attorney in a small but beautiful city right on the Pacific Ocean. He specializes in landlord-tenant disputes and other civil matters, and his success as a litigator has led to occasional media appearances, in which he is asked to speak about his latest cases. He gets a kick out of doing that.

Both have close-knit families. Mark is married to Dena, whom he met while on sabbatical in the Netherlands, and they have 3-year old twin boys. Brian is married to Karen. They started dating in law school, and now have a boy (age 6) and a girl (age 3).

Both men own homes in the suburbs of a major metropolitan area, about half an hour from the city and their jobs.

So, why is Brian happier than Mark? Was he simply lucky to be born with a sunnier disposition? Or, is he more fortunate with regard to the events and circumstances of his life?

Knowing them, I would be hard-pressed to assert that the life situation of one is clearly superior to the other. On balance, neither seems to have the better job, wife, kids, house, or car. Furthermore, scientific research has shown that prosperity, health, and physical attractiveness are only minimally related to one’s overall happiness. For example, a study by Ed Diener from the University of Illinois demonstrated that the richest Americans – those earning more than $10 million annually – report levels of personal happiness only slightly greater than the people who work for them. So, even if Mark had fewer of life’s “goods,” this shortfall wouldn’t explain his unhappiness.

What about genetics? Growing research done with identical and fraternal twins suggests that each person is born with a particular “happiness set point” – that is, a baseline or potential for happiness to which he or she is bound to return, even after major setbacks or triumphs. The set point for happiness is similar to the set point for weight. Some people are blessed with a “skinny disposition.” 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, Brian may simply possess a higher set point for happiness, a higher potential for well-being. He doesn’t have to work hard at it – he just is happy.

So if Brian’s happiness is due to genetics, what is left for Mark to do? Are we all doomed to obey the directives of our genes?

The answer is “no.” I am an experimental social psychologist who has conducted the first controlled experimental intervention studies to increase and maintain a person’s happiness level over and above his or her set point. In broadest terms, this research suggests that sustainable happiness is attainable regardless of genetics, if one is prepared to do the work. Much like permanent weight loss and fitness, becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes, requiring effort and commitment every day of one’s life.

My two colleagues – Ken Sheldon at the University of Missouri and David Schkade at UC San Diego – and I developed a theory that describes the most important factors determining happiness. In sum, we argue that the set point determines just 50% of happiness, while a mere 10% can be attributed to differences in people’s life circumstances – that is, whether they are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, married or divorced, etc. This leaves a surprising 40% of our capacity for happiness within our power to change: Mark can be a great deal happier, and Brian could be even happier too.

Below, I describe some of the happiness-increasing strategies that have the greatest potential in lastingly elevating happiness. Note that you do not need to attempt the entire list of happiness activities, but should choose to focus only on the one to four strategies that “fit” you best – the ones that seem most natural and enjoyable to you.

- Counting Your Blessings
One way to practice this strategy is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down the 3 to 5 things for which you are currently thankful – from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). Do this once a week, say, on Sunday night. Keep the strategy fresh by varying your entries and how you express them as much as possible. And if there’s a particular person who has been kind or influential in your life, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Write them a letter now, or, if possible, visit and thank them in person.

- Practicing Acts of Kindness
These should be both random (let the dad with the crying baby go ahead of you at the check-out counter) and systematic (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor). Being kind to others, whether friends or strangers, triggers a cascade of positive effects – it makes you feel compassionate and capable, gives you a greater sense of connection with others and earns you smiles, approval and reciprocated kindness. These are all happiness boosters.

- Nurturing Optimism
This strategy involves such practices as looking at the bright side, finding the silver lining in a negative event, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), feeling good about one’s future and the future of the world, or simply feeling that you can get through the day. One way to practice this strategy is to sit in a quiet place and take 20 to 30 minutes to think about and write down what you expect your life to be 10 years from now. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Then, write about what you imagined.

- Learning to Forgive
Let go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance by writing – but, not sending – a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. The inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on.

- Increasing “Flow” Experiences
When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called “flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. So, become fully engaged at work, at home, and at play. Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether it’s completing a project at the office, playing with your children, or enjoying a hobby. Seek work and leisure activities that engage your skills and expertise.

- Investing in Relationships
One of the biggest factors in happiness appears to be strong personal relationships. Indeed, having the support of someone who deeply cares about you is one of the best remedies for unhappiness. Thus, this strategy involves putting effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family and friends. Act with love, be as kind to the people close to you as you are to strangers, affirm them, share with them, and play together.

- Avoiding Overthinking
Remember the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? There’s a time to think about the bad stuff in your life, but dwelling on your problems excessively is unhealthy. Very happy people have the capacity – even during trying times like a parent’s chronic illness – to absorb themselves in an engaging activity, stay busy, and have fun. To practice this strategy, pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it when you notice yourself dwelling.

- Savoring Life’s Joys
Pay close attention and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a bakery, or the warmth of the sun when you step out from the shade. Some psychologists suggest taking “mental photographs” of pleasurable moments to review in less happy times.

- Taking Care of Your Soul
Studies show that religious and spiritual people are happier and healthier than others, though researchers don’t yet know why. Perhaps the social support of belonging to a close-knit religious group is valuable, as is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from believing in something greater than yourself. If you are so inclined, join a church, temple, or mosque; read a spiritually-themed book; or volunteer for a faith-based charity.

- Committing to Your Goals
People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project. However, being dedicated to any pursuit won’t make you happy if you’re just doing it for superficial reasons such as making money, boosting your ego, or succumbing to peer pressure.

- Using Your Body: Exercise, Meditation, Smiling, and Rest
Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term and promote energy and strong mental health. Practiced regularly, they can help make your daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.

The secrets to happiness are simple to learn, but not simple to carry out. However, with determined effort and commitment, anyone can learn practices and habits that will help them achieve levels of happiness over and above their set point and – even more important – to maintain those levels. You shouldn’t just “pursue” happiness – you should “construct” or “create” it yourself.

BIO:
Sonja Lyubomirsky (A.B., summa cum laude, Harvard; Ph.D., Stanford) is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She is a winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize. Her book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press) was released in January 2008.

Comments

Born un-happy?

Great post! I've just bought the book: hopefully it's good too...

In my own investigations I have found that emotion derives from what desires we set for ourselves. If we fulfill a desire or exceed it then we feel positive emotions. If we fail to fulfill a desire then we feel negative emotions. The type and intensity of the emotion depends upon the difference between the desire setpoint and the result in reality, plus the impact and proximity of that result.

Happiness thus becomes a function of managing desires (objective desires, expectations, needs and beliefs).

If you make your desires easy to fulfill and within your control to fulfill then you will feel positive emotions on a continuous basis (that holy grail of sustained happiness).

This article gives some more details:
http://www.nickpagan.com/blog/32/fundamental-emotion/

It would be fascinating if you could carry out research on your friends to see if the less happy one sets higher, more difficult to achieve desires than the happier one. I predict that he does and that his aspiring for desires that are unrealistic or difficult to fulfill lies at the heart of his lower levels of happiness.

Thanks for your comment Nick and good luck with your blog! I believe that the happiness each one of us experience its the result of very many factors. On the other hand, accomplishing what we set out to do help us building self-esteem(good opinion about us) and self-efficacy(faith that we are able to complete what we start), important components of an happy life.

In a way, desiring little is a blessing, but limiting our ambitions can be a curse.

Ciao
Marco

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