The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky is my favorite book on cultivating happiness. For years, psychology focused almost exclusively on mental illness. Finally, a branch of psychology has developed called positive psychology, and research on happiness is part of that development. Here is a summary of what Dr. Lyubomirsky reports.
Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile. 50% is a genetic set point. 10% is circumstances, external things or events. The remaining 40% is what you can control by what you do and how you think.
The happiest people:
devote a great amount of time to family and friends,
are comfortable expressing gratitude,
are eager to offer help to coworkers and strangers,
practice optimism about their future,
savor life’s pleasures and live in the present,
exercise weekly or even daily,
are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions, and
show poise and strength in the face of challenges.
Acquiring wealth, power or prestige does not bring lasting happiness. Once you are past the level of poverty and have enough resources to be comfortable, having more does not increase happiness significantly. In fact, the correlation between income and happiness is only modest, and in the US is near zero. Absolute income does not affect happiness; how satisfied you are with your income does. If you’re content with what you have, you are likely to be happy. One reason is that hedonic adaptation takes over, and we quickly get used to anything new. Most people, except for the very rich, think 10 to 20 percent more money would make them happier, but new things or new surroundings (bigger house, pay raise, marriage, sudden wealth) will usually bring only brief happiness. Studies have shown that lottery winners were no more happy after one year than before they won. Newly married people get a boost in happiness for about two years. We adjust to a new normal, and we compare ourselves to a new social group.
Adaptation works well to help adjust to bad events. For example, those going through dialysis adapt to their routine and are just as happy as those not in dialysis. Most people with permanent disabilities adjust to their new normal and report being just as happy as those with no disability.
Science has helped correct some other false beliefs. People generally become happier with age and peak between 65 and 75. Happiness does not decrease significantly with the “empty nest syndrome,” the “mid-life crisis,” or being post-menopausal. However, age does level out the extreme highs and lows.
Happiness is not significantly affected by gender, by employment or unemployment for married women, by having children or not, by having siblings or not, by living in the country or the city, by being highly educated or not, or by being a disadvantaged minority.
So what does work? Research has found thirteen things you can do that have been proven to increase happiness. Pick one or two that appeal to you, and practice them.
1. Express gratitude. Pick a time of day to write in a journal the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from mundane to the magnificent. For example, focus on something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, your advantages and opportunities, or people who care for you or have contributed to your success or have touched your life.
Or acknowledge one ungrateful thought a day and substitute a grateful one. Consider sharing your blessing with a gratitude partner. Consider expressing gratitude directly to someone in person or by letter (even if you don’t send it).
2. Cultivate optimism. Optimism is expecting a desirable future and explaining negative events as caused by external, transient and specific factors as opposed to internal, long-lasting and pervasive factors.
Write a narrative for twenty minutes about your best possible future self. For several days, imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams and your best potentials.
Or develop your long-range goals and sub-goals to reach them. If a discouraging thought comes to mind, generate alternative scenarios or possible resolutions. To recognize strengths and resources you already have, recall times in the past when you’ve been successful at something.
Or identify automatic pessimistic thoughts, then practice replacing that thought with a more favorable one. What else could this experience or situation mean? Can anything good come from it? Does it present any opportunities for me? What lessons can I learn and apply to the future? Did I develop any strengths as a result?
3. Avoid over-thinking. Over-thinking means thinking too much, needlessly, passively, endlessly, and excessively pondering the meanings, causes and consequences of your character, feelings and problems. It rarely brings useful insight.
Free yourself from ruminations by distracting yourself with an activity that makes you feel happy, curious, peaceful, amused, or proud. Read or watch something funny or suspenseful, listen to a song that’s transporting, meet a friend for tea, learn something new, do a physical activity that is absorbing, compelling and not harmful.
OR talk to a sympathetic and trusted person about your thoughts and troubles. Choose someone who can think objectively and will not ruminate with you. Don’t over use the person.
OR write out your ruminations, organize them, make sense of them, and observe patterns. Act on the problems you are ruminating about. Take a first step toward resolving them. Think of a person you admire and think of what that person might do. Don’t wait for something to happen or someone to help. Act now.
OR write a list of situations (times, places, people) that appear to trigger your over-thinking. Avoid them if possible or modify them.
OR ask yourself, “Will this matter in a year?” If it will, what can it teach you?
4. Avoid social comparisons. Those that are upward (He’s paid a higher salary. She got the promotion.) may lead to feelings of inferiority, distress, and loss of self-esteem. Even the athlete who gets a three-million dollar annual salary may be dissatisfied when his teammate gets four million. Your perceived relative income is much more important than your actual income. Downward comparisons (He got laid off. Her cancer has spread.) may lead to feelings of guilt, the need to cope with others’ envy and resentment, and fears of suffering the same fate. It may even lead to prejudice and disparaging others to make yourself feel better. However, after disaster or tragedy, comparing downward may bring feelings of good fortune – “We’re lucky. We could be worse off.” Working with people who are sick, disabled or in the midst of other misfortune can remind you of your own good fortune. Even just remembering our own times of deprivation can put a new light on what you enjoy now. The happiest people take pleasure in other’s success and show concern for their failures. They use their own internal standards to measure themselves and pay little attention to others.
5. Practice acts of kindness. Pick one day a week and commit to one new and special large act of kindness or three to five little ones. It needs to be something that pulls you out of your usual routine. If you’re short on money, give time – offer to repair something, weed a garden, take a child to the playground. Surprise someone with a home-cooked meal, an outing, a gift, a letter, or a phone call. Offer a smile and hello to a passerby, cashier or friend. At least once a week, do a kind deed about which you tell no one and for which you expect nothing in return.
Some forms of helping can be detrimental to your health. Full-time caregiving for a chronically ill or disabled person is one of them. When it’s too much or for too long it can lead to depression, stress, burnout, fatigue, anger, and resentment. In fact, any act you feel forced to do will not lead to more happiness.
Finally, not everyone will welcome your kindness. It can make the other person feel needy, disadvantaged and beholden and lead to hostility and resentment. This reaction is less likely if you do not behave self-righteously or condescendingly. Do not force yourself on those who do not want your help.
6. Nurture social relationships. Close relationships promote health. Social support is the most important coping mechanism in times of distress and trauma. Love may be the chief thing that makes us happy.
To make friends, show interest in others and offer them encouragement. Create rituals that allow regular contact. However, do not control all your interactions. Give the person space when they require it. When you communicate, make eye contact, give your full attention, listen carefully, and occasionally convey affection and admiration. Try to become comfortable with honest self-disclosure.
Take delight in your friends’, family members’, and partner’s windfalls and successes. Good relationships are more affected by how you respond to good news that how you respond to bad. Respond to good news with interest, excitement and enthusiasm rather than criticism, apathy, jealousy, or anxiety. Be helpful and supportive when your friends need it, and affirm their successes. Frequent hugging increases happiness, health and connectedness. Find creative ways to give hugs in appropriate circumstances. Stand up for your friends when you’re not together, protect their secrets, don’t put down their other friends, and reciprocate favors.
Although married people have been found to be happier than divorced, separated, widowed, or single people, long-term friendships and pets also make a difference. Singles often have closer and longer-lasting friendships.
7. Develop good coping strategies for stress, hardship or trauma. Stress and hardship are unavoidable. Coping is what people do to get through these events.
Find some value or gain in a traumatic event or loss. It may be a wake-up call to reorder priorities and devote more time to the most important things in your life. Post-traumatic changes and may lead to new activities and accomplishments and self-esteem, including renewed belief in your ability to endure and prevail, improved relationships, more comfort with intimacy, greater compassion for others, and a more sophisticated, deeper and more satisfying philosophy of life. Some people only survive, some recover to base level, and some thrive and go beyond pre-trauma functioning.
Social support is the most powerful coping strategy. It even increases immune system functioning in the ill. If a person in your life is hostile, critical or depressing, find someone else.
Finding new meaning in your assumptions about the world is helpful. Trauma threatens the beliefs that the world is comfortable and predictable, that bad things don’t happen to good people, and that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. People make sense of loss by acknowledging that life is short and fragile, by explaining death in terms of the deceased’s behavior, by accepting that some things happen for no reason, that even bad things have some benefits, or that trauma contains an important message.
Widows learned the most from problem-focused strategies (generate solutions, evaluate them, choose one, and act on it). Widowers learned the most from emotion-focused strategies (managing emotional reactions with distractions, physical exercise, emotional support, and cognitive strategies, including reframing and accepting.)
Write about a distressing event and express your personal reactions and emotions fully. This process has been found to enhance immune response, reduce intrusive thoughts and depression, and increase functioning. It forces you to integrate thoughts and emotions and images into a coherent narrative. Writing forces you to think in causal terms and leads to enhanced meaning and an increased sense of control. Write for at least 15 minutes each day and for several days in a row.
As an alternative, talk to a confidant. Acknowledge that your trauma or loss has caused you a great deal of pain and suffering. Then consider what you have done during your loss or in response to it that you are proud of. Next, consider how much you have grown as a result of your loss. Finally, think about how the trauma has positively affected your relationships.
8. Learn to forgive. Our natural inclination to being wronged, hurt or attacked is to reciprocate, avoid the person or seek revenge. Forgiveness involves replacing avoidance and revenge with more positive feelings and behaviors. It does not mean reconciling or reestablishing a relationship with an aggressor. It is not pardoning the aggressor or condoning or excusing or denying the act or its harm. It does not involve forgetting. You know you have forgiven someone when your desire to harm the person has decreased and your desire to do him or her good has increased. It is something you do for yourself. Buddha – “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting hurt.”
A good first exercise is to appreciate a time when you were forgiven. How was it communicated to you? Do you think they benefitted from forgiving you? Did your relationship benefit? Did the experience teach you anything or change you in any way? What insight do you have about the experience right now?
Another way is to seek forgiveness for yourself. Write a letter of apology, acknowledging what you did or did not do, that it was wrong, and describing the harm that it did to the other person or the relationship. You may want to pledge to change your behavior or offer some way to repay the person or ask what it would take to reestablish the relationship. Whether you send the letter is up to you – sometimes it is not possible or may be risky or unwise.
Sometimes it is appropriate and healthy to send a forgiveness letter. Be prepared for it to backfire, but it might restore the relationship. Even if you don’t send it, you can simply be kind to the person you have privately forgiven.
Imagine forgiveness by identifying a person whom you blame for mistreating or offending you. Then imagine empathizing with the offender and granting the person forgiveness. Try to be empathic and see the person as a whole not just as the offending behavior. Try to be aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors in detail. Imagine what you would say, what you would feel, what your facial expressions would be, what physical sensations you would feel.
Write a letter of forgiveness that you do not send. Describe in detail the injury or offense that was done to you, how you were affected at the time, how you continue to be hurt, what you wish the other person had done instead, and, finally, an explicit statement of forgiveness and understanding. You may need to start with something easier to forgive if the biggest thing is too difficult.
Consider charitable attributions about the transgressor by writing a letter that you’d like to receive from the transgressor in response to your forgiveness – the other person’s letter of apology. You might imagine that you were the transgressor and what might have driven you to do harm. Do you buy the explanation? Do you find it reasonable and adequate? Would you believe her? Would you give him “the benefit of the doubt”?
Practice empathy by noticing every time someone does something you don’t understand and working out what the person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions might be. If possible, ask the person.
Remember and practice what Nelson Mandela said about forgiving his jailers. “When I walked out the gate, I knew that if I continued to hate these people, I was still in prison.”
9. Increase flow experiences. A flow experience is being so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time. The activity is usually challenging, engrossing and intrinsically rewarding. If the task is too challenging, it creates anxiety and frustration. If it is too easy, it creates boredom. You can train yourself to experience flow in many more activities. As you master tasks, they become less stimulating and demanding, so to maintain flow, test ourselves with more challenging activities.
Become fully engaged in your daily activities by directing your full attention to each task. Practice controlling what you pay attention to. Be open to new and different experiences and learn as long as you live. The less expensive a leisure activity is, the more people enjoy it (gardening vs boating, talking to friends vs going to a concert).
Promote flow in conversations by focusing your intention as intensely as possible on what the other person is saying and your reactions. Don’t be too quick to respond. Try to learn more about the speaker – What is on his mind? What emotions is she experiencing?
10. Savor life’s joys. The difference between savoring and flow is that savoring requires stepping outside the experience and reviewing it. Those adept at savoring the present are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame. Those adept at joyful anticipation of future happy events are likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. Those adept at reminiscing about the past are best able to buffer stress.
Learn to appreciate and enjoy mundane, everyday experiences. Take a few moments each day to relish something you usually hurry through. Then write down in what ways the experience was different.
OR savor two pleasurable experiences each day by reflecting on them for two or three minutes and trying to make the pleasure last as long and as intensely as possible. Either way, focus on all your senses.
Savor and reminisce with family and friends. Sharing memories produces abundant positive emotions. Detailed reminiscing on a regular basis, whether with others or alone, boosts happiness, self esteem, and respite from stress. Memories can be of happy days, celebrations, good news, or accomplishments and successes.
Admire objects of beauty or displays of talent, genius or virtue. Strive to feel reverence and awe. Practice doing this with everyday events.
Practice mindfulness – being attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of your surroundings. Learn relaxation; pay attention to breathing; and become aware of your bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions. When you are distracted by daily irritations, disappointments and painful moments, ask yourself, “will this matter in a year?”
Luxuriate in and indulge your senses and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders and magical moments – the sweetness of a mango, the aroma of a bakery, the warmth of the sun, the fresh air after a storm, the brush strokes of a painting, the crescendo of a symphony. You may need to concentrate on certain senses and block out others – for example, close your eyes while listening to music.
Create a savoring album of pictures of favorite people, places or things or other meaningful items to carry with you, but use it only occasionally to stave off adaptation.
Train yourself to use a camera as a savoring tool. Use it in a way that enhances your experience rather than detracting from it by being too involved in the camera.
Nurture nostalgia – a wistful pleasure and yearning that is joyful, affectionate and tinged with sadness – but don’t compare these feelings with the present; focus only on the positives and how they enriched your life. If we use our happiest memories as a yardstick for assessing the present, we doom ourselves to disappointment.
Writing about savoring has been found to be counterproductive. It may prompt analyzing the experience rather than savoring.
It is important to balance living in the moment with planning for the future and learning from the past. Too much focus on the present may make you less capable of delaying gratification and more prone to engaging in risky behaviors.
11. Commit to your goals. People who strive for something personally significant are happier than those who don’t have strong dreams and aspirations. Goals may involve work, family, social, or spiritual aspirations.
The type of goal you set is important. Intrinsic goals (personally satisfying, meaningful and rewarding) are better than goals not freely chosen. They allow you to grow as a person, develop emotional maturity and contribute to your community. Using vacation to engage in worthwhile tasks is an example. Extrinsic goals are usually for superficial reasons (making money, boosting your ego, seeking power or fame) or a means to an end (to obtain a reward or to avoid a punishment). Intrinsic goals have been shown to be more inspiring and enjoyable and to make us happier. They satisfy our need for autonomy, a sense of competence and relatedness. Extrinsic goals can be useful to obtain resources and opportunities for other goals.
Goals that involve approaching a desirable outcome work better than goals that avoid an undesirable outcome. Obviously, goals that are complimentary are better than goals that are conflicting. Change one or more goals that are conflicting to make them harmonious or drop them. Goals may need to be flexible and appropriate to your stage in life.
Think of goals that are currently important to you or have been important in your life recently. List one to eight of them. For each goal, check off the positive attributes (intrinsic, authentic, approach-oriented, harmonious, activity-based, flexible/appropriate) and the negative attributes (extrinsic, inauthentic, avoidance-oriented, conflicting, circumstance-based, rigid/inappropriate). Reconsider or modify any goals with negative attributes.
What if you have no clear goals? Contemplate and describe what legacy you would like to leave after you die. Write a summary of your life, your values, and your present accomplishments as you would like them known to your descendants in the format of a first-person letter or obituary. OR write down the kind of lives you would want your children, or future children, to lead as adults: what kinds of people you wish them to become, which values to hold, which goals to attain. Rewrite until you are satisfied with it. This process will help you clarify what you consider important.
Think of ways to make your goals more interesting and challenging. Try to value them more, identify with them more, and find them more meaningful. “Owning” your goals is very important.
Pursuing goals may involve drudgery, hard work, obstacles, stress, personal sacrifice, and failure. It’s important to commit to your goals with passion, ardor and zeal. Explaining your goals to other people, especially publicly, is helpful. Being optimistic and confident and taking risk is helpful. It may be necessary to alter your sub-goals or path to your ultimate goal. It may also be necessary to take advantage of new opportunities as they emerge.
Generate a list of your personal aspirations, intentions and projects, and think of any irrational beliefs about your goals. Identify your highest-priority goal and contemplate how much effort it will take, what resources you will need, how much you will enjoy each step, etc. Select a single goal, describe it in concrete terms, and personally commit yourself to it. Write it down or post it in a visible place or announce it to family or friends. Decide where, when and how you will take action. Anticipate obstacles and strategies to manage them. Carry out your plan, persist through challenges and difficulties, and revise your plan as needed.
12. Practice the search for transcendent values and meaning. The search for meaning in life through something larger than yourself is sometimes called spirituality. Some studies find that spiritual people are relatively happier, have better mental health, cope better with stressors, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs and alcohol less often, are healthier, and live longer than non-spiritual people. People who perceive a higher power as loving and responsive are happier than those who see it as judgmental and punishing.
Those who don’t believe in a god or other supernatural power can find meaning by pursuing work that is a calling, viewing their circumstances as privileges, seeing love as eternal, respecting their own bodies, and by seeing the wonder and awe in life. Meditation or meditative prayer is a great means for transcending ordinary life. Meaning and purpose can be created and nurtured by cultivating a sense of awe, inspiration, wonder, and connection with the universe. Extraordinary circumstances, such as the birth of a child, may facilitate these feelings.
Positive benefits can come from both secular and sacred sources. Practicing gratitude is the essence of praising God. Loving and serving others and practicing acts of kindness is equivalent to serving God. Being indifferent to bad things that happen and staying focused on a purpose and meaningful goals in life can be your salvation. Knowing you don’t have to go it alone, allowing others to be helpful and being part of a larger community rather than being isolated and independent has the same effect as seeking help from a higher power. Appreciating the mystery and wonder of natural causes is just as beneficial as the wonder of a supernatural creation.
People active in a religion have greater social support and are better able to find meaning in trauma. Some studies find that religious people tend to live longer, are healthier, and are less depressed after a loss. Some religious groups practice healthier lifestyles – healthier diets and less premarital sex, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. However, other studies show that countries and states that are the least religious have less violent crime, less poverty, lower obesity rates, lower infant mortality, and fewer teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Religion, especially fundamentalism, can also bring anxiety, guilt, suppressed emotions, and prejudiced attitudes. Relinquishing all control to God can lead to passivity and to irrational thinking. People who believe that prayer can cure all illness are less likely to exercise and be active in their own health care. Those who see God as distant, punitive, judgmental, or unfair are more likely to be distressed and ill and to develop authoritarian attitudes. Those who think God or Satan uses negative events to punish people have more guilt, shame and fear and have greater depression and poorer health. A belief in original sin leads to lower self-esteem and feelings of incompetence and shame. Religious communities that are the most conservative or fundamental are the least tolerant and accepting of people different from themselves. And finally, a search for transcendent meaning can be unsuccessful and lead to anxiety and distress and, in rare cases, to absolute submission to a cult and isolation from rational support.
You can enhance your quest for harmonious values and transcendent meaning by reading spiritually-themed books, listening to programs and lectures and discussing with others the great questions of life. The goal is to create and develop your own meaning rather than blindly embrace someone else’s. Explore a variety of viewpoints, challenge your own most cherished beliefs, be willing to live with ambiguity and unanswered questions, and avoid short-circuiting your quest with absolute certainty. Activities that will facilitate this goal include, pursuing goals that are harmonious and attainable; developing consistent and compatible life values and actions; pursuing creativity in arts, humanities, science, and self-discovery; learning to surmount anguish and trauma; focusing on strong emotional experiences in the presence of mystery, awe, wonder, intense love, immensity, and exquisite beauty; and practicing seeing the wonder in ordinary things. Striving to live a virtuous life and to improve the world around you has profound benefits for your own happiness.
13. Take care of your body. Meditation and physical activity are both important.
One way to practice meditation is to sit in a comfortable place where you will not be interrupted. Close your eyes and focus on breathing in and out as you relax your abdomen and silently repeat a word, such as “one,” “aum,” or “be.” OR focus on a specific object, sound or task, such as a candle, tone, or your breath. If your mind wanders, let your thought pass and gently bring your attention back to your focus. Just notice your mind wandering and then detach from it. With practice and determination, it will get easier to maintain quietness or stillness for longer times. Build your meditation from five to twenty minutes. Arrange a special place that is comfortable and free of distractions. Try to do it daily.
Physical activity for four months has been shown to be as effective as Zoloft for reducing depression, and the results lasted longer. Physical activity also reduces anxiety and stress; protects us from cancer and heart disease; reduces the risk of numerous other diseases; builds bones, muscles and joints; increases the quality of life; improves sleep; protects against cognitive impairments as we age; and helps control weight gain. In spite of feeling discomfort during exercise, you might feel motivated, exhilarated, and less anxious immediately afterward. Or you might not notice enduring effects until much later. Many people give up before they reach that mark.
Try to find an exercise routine that fits your lifestyle, resources and personality. Don’t jog if you live in a rainy climate and hate getting wet. Don’t join a gym if it strains your budget. If you’re a social person, find a buddy or join a club. If you like nature, try hiking or skiing. Try exercising in ten-minute chunks at work or make it part of your daily routine by taking stairs instead of the elevator or by parking farther away from your destinations. If exercise makes you feel bad, you are probably overdoing it. Calculate your maximum heart rate (220 minus your age) and do not exceed 60 percent of that limit to start with. As your fitness improves, you will have to move faster to get to 60 percent. When you are feeling good at that level, continue activities that keep your heart rate at approximately 65 to 80 percent of your calculated maximum. Most people find it helpful to increase exercise gradually, schedule a regular time, choose a time of day when you feel most energetic, stick with your plan, adjust it if necessary, and return to it when you slip.
Sustaining happiness. The thirteen activities don’t just make you feel happier, they can change who you are. If you were to have a financial windfall, you would be much happier spending it on numerous small things (weekly lunch with a friend or regular massages) rather than on one or two big things (big trip, remodeling the bathroom with expensive tile).
And finally, acting like your happy or pretending to be happy can actually make you happier. Smiling has been proven to make people feel happier and to affect those with whom they interact. Laughter lowers stress hormones. Even the expectation of laughter increases beneficial hormones. So smile, laugh, stand tall, act lively, and give hugs.