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Sonja Lyubomirsky's views on increasing happiness

Sonja Lyubomirsky's book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting The Life You Want, is a practical, self-help book which outlines specific practices that anyone can apply to their daily lives, is an accessible book based entirely on the findings of solid scientific research.

The author is a prominent researcher who has spent the last 18 years studying human happiness and has made some significant personal contributions to this science. Her research has focused especially on the 'architecture of sustainable happines'.  In other words, it is concerned with how people can lastingly increase their happiness and, more recently, how we can fight hedonic adaptation - our human tendency to rapidly become accustomed not only to sensory and physiological changes but also to significant life events. There is a great deal of evidence that shows that the happiness boost we gain from positive life events lasts less than a year, in the case of winning the lottery, and about two years in the case of marriage, for example. While this is somewhat discouraging, it has its flipside in that the same process can apply to negative events, including debilitating illnesses or accidents.

The How of Happiness includes a discussion of these research interests and also distils a huge amount of findings from Positive Psychology and the science of happiness, organising them into twelve practical strategies. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one discusses Lyubomirsky's 'happiness pie' and '40 per cent solution', which she elaborated with two colleagues of hers. Research on identical and fraternal twins has shown that we are all born with a baseline happiness, a happiness set point, to which we return after important positive or negative events.  It is estimated that this set point accounts for about 50 per cent of differences between people's levels of happiness.

A further 10 per cent of happiness is accounted for by circumstances. This is initially counterintuitive as most people imagine that circumstances account for a much higher percentage.  But if we remember the process of hedonic adaptation we can better understand the fact that life circumstances, like wealth and health, only have a short-term and limited influence on happiness. And there is a wealth of evidence, claims Lyubomirsky, to support this conclusion. For example, someone who moves from the city into a quite village surrounded by beautiful nature may initially experience euphoria, then very happy and after about six months and then just a little happier than when we lived in the city. 

This leaves us with 40 per cent, which, according to Lyubomirsky and her colleagues, is under our control. Through our behaviour and actions such as 'intentional activities', and how we think, we can increase or decrease our level of happiness by up to 40 per cent.  This is what Lyubomirsky means by her 40 per cent solution. Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, translates this 50-40-10 happiness pie into the happiness formula: H = S + C + V, where H is happiness, S set point, C circumstances and V factors under our voluntary control. He calls V 'the single most important issue in Positive Psychology'.

Our ability to become happier and to become so in a sustainable fashion, is therefore dependent on the management of our inner world, our emotions and mind, and the actions that follow on from these. Lyubomirsky similarly stresses the importance of sustained, committed effort. If we consider the creation of happiness a worthwhile goal, we need to invest the same effort required for undertaking any other worthwhile endeavour in life.

A further fact for consideration is our set point, while genetically determined, depends on the external environment in order for these genes to express themselves. Lyubomirsky gives as an example research on the depression gene, which was shown to express itself only from stress. So this means we have limited control.

Part one of the book concludes with a questionnaire, adapted from the work of Lyubomirsky's colleague Ken Sheldon, to help the reader find which of the strategies outlined in the book's unhappiness and the person's strengths and lifestyle. 'Person-activity fit' is clearly a good idea, since you are much more likely to stick at a practice that resonates.  However, while some people might find this questionnaire useful others might prefer to choose more intuitively.

Part two starts with another questionnaire, the 'Oxford Happiness Inventory', a happiness rather than a 'subjective well-being' questionnaire.  Although it is widely used it is certainly not without its critics (e.g. Todd Kashdan). This questionnaire is provided so the reader can follow their progress periodically during the implementation of the activities. There are twelve happiness activities:

  • Avoiding over thinking (rumination)
  • Social comparison 
  • Practicing acts of kindness
  • Nurturing social relationships
  • Developing strategies for coping 
  • Learning to forgive 
  • Increasing flow experiences 
  • Savouring life's joys
  • Committing to your goals
  • Practicing religion and spirituality 
  • Taking care of your body through physical exercise and meditation 
  • Acting like your happy

Lyubomirsky explains why each specific strategy boosts happiness and for many strategies she offers a wide variety of ways to practice them. She takes these practices from many sources, often concentrating on key researchers for each area. For nurturing social relationships, for example, she advocates the strategies that John Gottman has observed being used by happy married couples and outlined in  The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. He and his team have spent decades monitoring married couples' behaviour, speech, facial expressions and physiological activity (for signs of stress and relaxation) in a fabricated apartment called the 'Love Lab' As a result of these studies, he can predict, with 91 per cent accuracy and in as little as five minutes, whether a couple that comes to the lab will flourish or separate.

For gratitude, she suggests the classic 'count your blessings' and 'gratitude visit' interventions, and for optimism she suggest among other things, writing about 'best possible future selves' breaking bigger goals to smaller ones, and 'challenging unhelpful thinking'.

The twelve strategies plus the many different ways to practice each strategy provides the reader with an impressive selection that allows each person to choose which practice best fits their personality. Bringing together so much research, a clear theoretical base and so many practices is the greatest merit of this book and certainly provides a great service to the reader. Not all of Positive Psychology research is included, however - interventions around strengths, for example, are missing and some of those she includes will strike many as superficial or trite something Lyubomirsky recognises. However, the research does support their effectiveness.  In fact, the intervention 'acting like your happy', including pretending to smile and be engaged, and mimicking enthusiasm and energy, has a couple of surprising facts supporting the claim. For example, it has been found that people with mobius syndrome, a birth defect that leaves people without the ability to move their facial muscles, are unable to feel emotions.

Part three includes explanations on how and why these happiness strategies work and why they are capable of producing lasting happiness. This is an important section as it gives us a good understanding of why and how the exercises work, increasing our motivation and ability to persevere.

The first 'how' is positive emotion. Happiness, as least hedonic happiness or subjective well-being, is often defined as the frequent experience of positive emotion and infrequent experience of negative emotion. All twelve happiness strategies are designed, says Lyubomirsky, to boost our experience of positive emotions. Frequent, recurrent surges of positive emotion not only make you feel good but also, as Barbara Friedrickson's broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions strongly suggests, broaden people's ways of thinking and action.  They do act as antidotes to negative emotions: build psychological resiliency and enduring personal and social resources; promote psychological and physical well-being; and lead to optimal individual functioning. The happiness activities also promote positive thinking (e.g. cultivating optimism, gratitude and avoiding over thinking) and positive experiences (e.g. nurturing relationships, cultivating flow). All of these are also important antidotes to depression, an increasingly common disorder.

Many believe that positive emotions are trivial in comparison with the search for meaning and integrity and purpose. But Friedrickson (http://www.unc.edu/peplab/publications.html) has given them greater substance by showing how they make us think more flexibly, be more creative, more helpful and sociable and be more active and resilient. 

The second 'how' is timing and variety.  This is important in order to stave off the effects of hedonic adaptation on the happiness activities themselves! The third is the importance ofsocial support - having a partner or friend who can give feedback and encouragement to persevere. The fourth is motivation, effort and commitment. This is perhaps the most important. As mentioned above, any worthwhile endeavour requires effort and dedication. Understanding the importance of happiness, seeing it as a noble goal, knowing its myriad benefits to yourself and others helps increase the motivation to persevere. Harvard psychology professor Dr Tal Ben Shahar defines happiness as the 'ultimate currency' as it is the goal behind all goals and owning this belief and sentiment can also boosts commitment to practice.

The final 'how' is habit, the need to transform the happiness activity into a habit so that it becomes second nature, even turning it into a ritual. Effort and commitment are required in the beginning but this effort gradually should become a natural and integral part of our life. 

The book finishes with a postscript on depression, reviewing the most effective treatments, such cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, and antidepressants, and strongly recommends anyone who suffers from depression to start treatment. But Lyubomirsky also adds that, as a complementary 'treatment', happiness activities will bring some relief - as studies by Seligman and others have shown.

This optimistic book offers a theory that makes the creation of happiness less daunting, more comprehensible and more attainable. It shows us what we should and should not spend our time and energy on to increase happiness, explains how and why we can make steady progress towards greater and greater happiness, and offers an array of easy-to-apply evidence-based practices to achieve this.

Here is a link to a TV interview with Sonia Lyubomirsky 

 

 
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