How Positive Psychology Can Increase Your Happiness

Psychology prof Sonja Lyubomirsky says 12 positive activities can boost your happiness.

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You can thank your parents—in part—for how happy you are; roughly half of human happiness is genetically determined. Another 10 percent comes from your life circumstances, like how happy you are with where you live. But because people quickly adapt to changes, swapping Midwest winters for West Coast warmth, say, won't lead to a lasting boost in life satisfaction, according to longtime happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside. What can give us a lasting boost is how we think and behave, she says: About 40 percent of our happiness is under our conscious control.

Happiness, as she and other researchers define it, is comprised of two main components: A cognitive component—that is, how you think about your life, how satisfied you are with your life, and whether you feel that you are progressing towards your life's goals—and an affective component, which has to do with how often you experience positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions, though fleeting, are arguably the hallmark of happiness, she says, and can lead to upward spirals in mood and behavior.

In Lyubomirsky's 2008 book, The How of Happiness, she discusses 12 activities that science suggests can lay the groundwork for increasing and sustaining happiness by creating bursts of positive emotions. These range from practicing acts of kindness to savoring positive things, like your morning pastry, a hot shower, or time with your kids. Because not all of these activities will suit your goals and values, Lyubomirsky advises people to take her Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic before choosing which to practice. Several other factors influence how much they'll work, such as how often you do them, the effort you put in, and how motivated you are to get happier—people motivated to increase their happiness got more benefit from such interventions than those randomly selected to try them, Lyubomirsky found in a recent study. "Happiness takes work," she says. "But over time these strategies will become habitual."

A new iPhone app that launched this month is based on Lyubomirsky's research and her book. The $6.99 Live Happy app allows users to track their happiness levels and practice some of her strategies—gratitude, for example, can be practiced by texting, emailing, or calling someone from your contact list. While Lyubomirsky is not profiting financially off the new app, she will be using it to study how her recommendations work in the real world.

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