Is lasting happiness attainable or a pipe dream? For the past 18 years, University of California-Riverside professor of psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky has studied this question, and what she reports might even sway pessimists. In an interview with U.S. News, she says that it's quite possible to stretch the limits of our pre-programmed temperaments. And in a new book in stores this month, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life you Want, she demonstrates how to do it—without medication. (Find out where you stand on her Subjective Happiness Scale.) Interview excerpts:
Why are some people happier than others?
About 50 percent of the answer lies in genetics. We're born with a genetically determined happiness "set point," meaning that even though our happiness will seesaw following pleasing or traumatic life events, it will inevitably shift back to a natural level. Life circumstances, such as where we live, whether we're married, whether we're physically attractive, whether we're wealthy, or healthy, have very little bearing on our well-being—only 10 percent—because human beings adapt very quickly to situations. Someone who feels elated after upgrading to a big house is likely to soon start yearning for more—an extra bedroom, a pool, whatever it may be. But ultimately, whether we drive a battered truck or a Lexus to work; whether we have hypertension or asthma, our ability to be happy and get happier doesn't vary much.
But people predisposed to unhappiness aren't doomed to stay that way?
Hardly. The remaining portion of our happiness—40 percent—is within our control. And we do so by changing how we think and behave. It's like weight. My "set point" for weight is higher than I'd like, but I exercise and eat well daily to ensure I stay below that level. I know that if I slacked off, however, my weight would surge back up. The same is true for happiness. We can boost our happiness above our preset level, but keeping it there requires consistent effort. Ideally, that effort will become habit, and as with exercise, it will become less of a chore with time. Those prone to unhappiness aren't doomed; they'll just have to try harder to counteract the forces working against them.
That sounds like work.
It is work, but it isn't necessarily unpleasant work. And the payoff is worth it. Being happy brings with it many benefits. By reviewing 225 studies, I've found that happy people on the whole are healthier, they live longer, they're more productive at their jobs, they earn more money, they're more helpful, they have better relationships, they have stronger social support networks, and they cope better than unhappy people do.
In your book, you detail 12 scientifically tested activities people can use to increase their level of happiness. Can you give a few examples?
Not everyone should do all 12 of these things. [You can find out which activity suits you best by taking Lyubomirsky's Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic.] But each is an example of how we can change our thoughts and actions to maximize our happiness. First, we must identify which of these activities suits us best. People often fail at boosting happiness because they choose strategies that don't fit with their strengths and lifestyles. And the trick is to keep doing them. For some people, it's expressing gratitude that works. They write down three to five things they're grateful for once a week, which helps them avoid taking things for granted. The moment we start taking things for granted—whether it be our husbands or our health—those things stop making us happy. Other people might benefit most from distraction. Rumination is a huge barrier for happiness. My studies have shown that people who ruminate aren't gaining insight; they're just making themselves unhappier. The most effective way to escape its seductive stranglehold is to distract with absorbing activities. Go on a run. Meet a friend for lunch. Some people pluck rubber bands on their wrists; the jolt of pain signals stop each time they ruminate.
Is it ever too late?
No. The "set point" doesn't become more entrenched over time. Habits might, but research has shown us that habits can be changed. People who smoke all their lives are able to quit. There's no reason this should be any different.
Why do the methods you describe work?
They're creating little bursts of enthusiastic feelings. And really, the key to having lasting happiness is having frequent positive emotions. It's unfortunate that so many people poo-poo feelings on the basis that they're transient. Even though they're transient, they're perhaps the most important factor in getting that 40 percent of happiness under our control.
Are you happy?
I'm up there, but I don't live enough in the present. I have what we call "future nostalgia." I'll be sitting on the couch with my young kids, thinking that they're wonderful. But then I can't stop myself from thinking about how they're going to change; they'll be getting older soon. So, I'm already expecting to be nostalgic for that moment, rather than savoring it. Like anyone else, sometimes I need to heed my own advice.