Happiness Rx: What Science Says
interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky
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Sonja Lyubomirsky is a researcher on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness; professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside; and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press, 2008). She was interviewed by the RJ magazine editors.

Is happiness a value that’s worth pursuing?

Very much so. A comprehensive analysis of happiness studies demonstrates the wide variety of benefits which accrue from positive emotion and well-being, including greater career success, better relationship functioning, increased creativity, enhanced physical health, even longer life expectancy. Happiness is worth pursuing, not only because it feels good, but also because it is a wise investment in social and public health.

Do demographic factors influence a person’s self-assessment of happiness? For example, is there a correlation between age and happiness?

The relationship between age and happiness is complex. Studies have found that older people generally tend to be happier than younger ones. A 22-year study of healthy veterans revealed that well-being increased over the course of these men’s lives, peaked at age 65, and did not start significantly declining until age 75. People tend to move toward more positive trait profiles as they age, becoming lower in neuroticism, for example, as they approach middle age. This may be because older people are better able to resist social pressures and pursue goals for more self-endorsed reasons, the result of a normative maturational process. Older people have also been found to be emotionally wiser.

Is education a factor in happiness?

Education in itself has a very small correlation with well-being, mostly because its benefits are explained by the fact that better educated people have higher-status jobs and higher incomes.

How does income correlate with happiness?

Money is a necessary, but not a sufficient, determinant of happiness. In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is comfortable, added money adds little happiness. Very well-off individuals are only slightly happier than the blue-collar workers they employ. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million—are only slightly happier than the average American. And although many Americans have reached a level of affluence that would have amazed us 50 years ago, happiness levels have not budged over these 50 years.

What about marriage?

Married people—especially women—report being happier than unmarried people, although this may be due in part to happier people being more likely to attract marriage partners. However, those who are in “not very happy” marriages report lower levels of happiness and health than the unmarried or the divorced.

What about religiosity?

Religious people are also somewhat happier, likely due to the social and community benefits of religious participation rather than the belief in a higher power.

What role does gender play?

There are no gender differences in global happiness, but women experience higher highs and lower lows, whereas men are inclined toward an emotional equilibrium.

How much do these life-circumstance factors combined account for happiness?

Approximately 10%. Although most of us think that we’d be happier “if only” X or Y happened, research suggests that we will adapt quickly to any positive life change and return back to our previous happiness level. Scientists call this tendency “hedonic adaptation”—what is originally a source of joy for us will soon become part of the unnoticed background, losing its power to impact. Even recent lottery winners tend to return to their original happiness baselines after several months.

Unless our life circumstances are dire (e.g., poverty or abuse), they do not impact our happiness as much as we think they do.

What other factors account for our sense of happiness?

The single most important determinant appears to be genetics. In investigating the well-being of identical and fraternal twins who were raised together or apart, researchers have found that the happiness levels of the identical twin pairs are strongly correlated, and the correlation is equally high regardless of whether such twins have grown up under the same roof or miles apart. Pairs of fraternal twins, however, show much smaller correlations between their levels of well-being, even when they have shared the same upbringing and household. These data suggest that each person is born with a particular “happiness set point” to which he or she is bound to return.

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; the moment they slack off even a bit, the pounds creep back on. About 50% of the differences among people’s happiness levels are explained by such immutable genetically determined set points—whether they’re high or low or in between.

Is it, then, impossible to make long-term changes in one’s happiness?

Not necessarily. A trait like happiness, which is influenced by genes (50%) and demographic and circumstantial factors (10%), still allows considerable room to maneuver. Psychotherapy, for example, can have measurable, lasting positive impact upon people’s moods and adjustment. The set point is not destiny.

What factors determine the remaining 40% of individual differences in happiness?

The 40% is determined by what people do—that is, the intentional activities in which people choose to engage from day to day. Such activities can be behavioral (e.g., practicing random acts of kindness), cognitive (e.g., expressing gratitude), or motivational (e.g., pursuing intrinsic significant life goals).

Intentional activity has the best potential to elevate people into the upper end of their happiness range, and even to keep them there—if certain conditions are met: (1) having many positive experiences over time that fit your personality, disposition, and needs; and (2) varying them in both content and timing, in order to prevent hedonic adaptations. For example, if you choose to adopt a running habit in order to stay in shape, it is important that running in and of itself be somewhat interesting and enjoyable for you in comparison to other physical activities you might select, such as playing tennis or practicing yoga. And you could stay excited about running, for instance, by running in different places and in varying styles, as well as learning novel skills and techniques along the way, so the resulting experiences stay “fresh.”

We witnessed this effect in a 10-week experiment in which participants were instructed to commit random acts of kindness. Those who were asked to perform a wide variety of kind acts revealed an upward trajectory for happiness in comparison to those who consistently repeated the same acts. Similarly, a person trying to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” by habitually counting his/her blessings should avoid dwelling on the same blessings, and try instead to identify and appreciate new sources of gratitude.

Does expressing gratitude typically enhance happiness?

It does, but gratitude needs to be practiced in optimal ways. In one study we asked participants to think about five things for which they were grateful (e.g., “a healthy body,” “my parents”) either once or three times a week. Participants who expressed gratitude once a week reported greater happiness six weeks later; participants who expressed gratitude three times a week did not benefit. Doing something too often or too regularly may backfire. When activities lose their freshness and meaning, they turn into a chore.

Can a person resolve to have a more positive attitude?

Resolving to “always look on the bright side of life” can influence the quality of subsequent experiences, including happiness experiences. Ultimately, though, it is the successful pursuit of self-appropriate goals that produces an accumulation of small satisfying experiences in daily life, which in turn enhance happiness. In our studies, we have found that people who practice happiness-boosting activities with effort and commitment—and under optimal conditions—report becoming happier people as a result.

Is it difficult to to become a happier person?

The pursuit of happiness takes work, but hopefully it’s work that feels like play. This is more likely (1) when the activity fits one’s enduring motives, dispositions, and interests; (2) when the activity provides an opportunity for positive experiences and personal growth; (3) when you want to become happier and believe that it is possible, but do not focus too strongly on the happiness-enhancing effects of the activity (or the effort may backfire); and (4) when you are willing to invest the energy to continue to practice it.It takes motivation and an appropriate strategy to become a happier person, but it may be the most rewarding work we’ll ever do.


Sonja Lyubomirskys 11 Happiness Boosters

According to scientific research, with commitment and determined effort we can develop habits that help us achieve and maintain higher levels of happiness. Here are 11 such strategies to help you “construct” a happier life.

  1. Count Your Blessings. Keep a “gratitude journal” and once a week list three to five things for which you are thankful—from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). As much as possible, vary the kinds of blessings and how you express them. And in the process, if you name a particular person who has been kind to you or influential in your life, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Write him/her a letter now, or, if possible, visit and thank the person.

  2. Practice Acts of Kindness. These should be varied, and both random (let the dad with the crying baby go ahead of you at the checkout counter) and planned (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor).

  3. Nurture Optimism. Practice finding the silver lining in negative events, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong) in a given situation, feeling good about the future (your own and the world’s), or simply feeling that you can get through the day.

  4. Learn to Forgive. Write—but don’t send—a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. It may help you in letting go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance.

  5. Increase “Flow” Experiences. When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you’re in a state called “flow.” Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether you’re completing a project at the office, playing with your children, engaging in a temple mitzvah initiative, or enjoying a hobby. Enhance flow by engaging in work and leisure activities that draw upon your skills and expertise.

  6. Invest in Relationships. Having strong personal relationships is one of the major contributing factors to happiness. Put effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family, friends, and fellow congregants. 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.

  7. Avoid Over-Thinking. Even during trying times, very happy people have the capacity to absorb themselves in an engaging activity. Pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it whenever you notice yourself obsessing about the bad stuff in your life.

  8. Savor Life’s Joys. Pay close attention to and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a fresh baked challah, 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.

  9. Take Care of Your Soul. Studies show that religious and spiritual people are happier and healthier than others, perhaps because of the social support of belonging to a close-knit religious group and the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from believing in something greater than yourself. If you haven’t already, join a synagogue or a community center—and become actively involved.

  10. Commit to Your Goals. People who strive for something significant in their pursuits, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Start by taking “baby steps” towards goals that help you accomplish something, nurture relationships, and feel better about yourself.

  11. Use Your Body. Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling, and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term, and promote strong mental health. Practiced regularly, these energizing practices can help make daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.

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    Union for Reform Judaism.