How to Be Happier
Most people want to be happy. It is a desire that transcends age, ethnicity, geographical location, political orientation, religion, and life experience. And it is not an irrational desire. Hundreds of studies have shown that happiness doesn’t just feel good—it is good. Relative to their less happy peers, happy people have stronger relationships, higher incomes, and superior physical and mental health. In light of these findings, a large and growing science of happiness, or well-being, has been striving to uncover what are the determinants and outcomes of happiness—and, importantly, how to increase it. In September 2019, I (Sonja) will be marking the 30th anniversary of conducting research in the well-being space. What have we learned in those 30 years?
The answer is that several key findings have emerged. First, and perhaps most important, the successful pursuit of happiness indeed appears to be within most people’s reach. Evidence from longitudinal randomized controlled trials has shown that people can markedly improve their well-being when they engage in so-called “positive activities”—that is, concrete cognitive and/or behavioral steps that boost happiness. Such simple, self-administered practices include expressing gratitude or appreciation, doing kind acts for other people, cultivating optimism, meditating on positive feelings toward oneself and others, and affirming one’s most important values. Emerging research suggests that even the simple instruction to behave in more extraverted (that is, more social and assertive) ways leads both introverts and extraverts to experience more happiness and positive emotions.
If such practices sound familiar to you, it is probably because viral popular media pieces, numerous trade books, and a burgeoning industry of well-being coaches constantly promote and disseminate these positive activities, as people around the globe seek to incorporate them as habits into their daily lives. Fortunately, recent research is showing that activities like gratitude and kindness improve not only happiness but other aspects of people’s lives—for example, by moving one to become a better person, boosting one’s popularity, and even producing shifts in immune gene expression.
Furthermore, we have learned quite a bit in the last couple decades about the “how” and “why” behind the success of these positive activities. Research suggests that practices like savoring and gratitude generate well-being by leading people to experience more frequent pleasant emotions (such as delighting in breakfast with a friend), think more positive thoughts (such as viewing other people’s behavior as more neighborly), and engage in more productive behaviors (such as working harder in school to make one’s supportive parents proud).
Notably, such practices are also likely to satisfy our basic psychological needs, which psychologists have assembled into three buckets: autonomy (or sense of control), competence (or sense of efficacy), and connectedness (or sense of warmth and closeness to others). For example, studies are showing that expressing gratitude to a family member increases well-being by promoting feelings of social connection; and visualizing optimistic futures increases well-being by helping people perceive their daily experiences as more satisfying.
Of course, like any medical or behavioral intervention, not all happiness-boosting strategies will work equally well for different users or under every condition, and multiple studies have borne this prediction out. As described by our “positive activity model,” whether or not the pursuit of happiness is successful is influenced by aspects of the activity, such as its dosage (how often an activity is performed) and its context—for example, whether one counts blessings every day versus once a week or whether one attempts to connect with others on social media versus face to face. It is also influenced by characteristics of the happiness seeker, such as how unhappy she is to begin with, her cultural background, and how invested she is in becoming happier. A recent study, for example, revealed that men and women from Hong Kong (but not the U.S.) benefited more from recalling acts of kindness towards close others than towards strangers.
So, we know that engaging in positive activities can make people happier, but we are also learning that there are circumstances under which they may actively backfire. For example, doing a kindness for a friend might lead a person to feel paradoxically less socially connected if the kindness is patronizing or ineffectual, and thanking a coworker might lead one to experience indebtedness, embarrassment, or guilt, if doing so highlights one’s neediness or failure to repay.
Thirty years ago, the science of happiness and well-being comprised just one (remarkable) person: Ed Diener. Today, it is an exciting, coordinated, maturing field that spans multiple disciplines. Far and away the question that we are asked most frequently, however, is about how to be happier. We close with a two-part response.
The first is cautious. More work is clearly needed to extend and replicate previous findings, as well as to offer increasingly nuanced accounts of the mechanisms and boundary conditions underlying the pursuit of happiness. The second is encouraging. Mounting evidence from three decades of research suggests that small and simple self-administered positive practices—when performed in deliberate and optimal ways—can transform people into happier, more positive, and more flourishing individuals.
For Further Reading:
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 57-62.
Fritz, M. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2018). Whither happiness? When, how, and why might positive activities undermine well-being. In J. P. Forgas & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), The social psychology of living well (pp. 101-115). New York: Psychology Press.
Sonja Lyubomirsky is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, where she investigates how people can become happier. She has written two books, The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness.
Megan Fritz is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work focuses on the capacity of practices like kindness and gratitude to improve (or undermine) individuals’ well-being and physical health.