At the end of the day, happiness is a choice. And it takes discipline.
That’s the conclusion of “The How of Happiness,” my favorite scientific book on well-being, written by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. Lyubomirsky spent more than two decades studying what makes happy people tick, and running controlled experiments in which participants practiced a specific strategy to boost well-being.
Happiness turns out to be a worthwhile pursuit: happier people are physically healthier, have stronger immune systems, are more creative and productive at work, have more friends, make more money and are more likely to get married, a review of more than 200 studies found. They even live longer than their gloomy peers.
Happiness Is Not About Our Life Circumstances
Lyubomirsky suggests that 50 percent of our happiness “set point” is genetic. We inherit the propensity to be as cheerful as Mary Poppins or as morose as Eeyore. Studies of identical twins raised apart, for example, show they are closer in happiness levels than fraternal twins raised together (who share only half their genes). Surprisingly, a tiny 10 percent of happiness, she argues, depends on life circumstances, such as income, education, health or marital status.
“There is a definite myth that happiness is something we have to search for and find through our circumstances, and we either find it or we don’t,” Lyubomirsky told me in an interview. “People say, ‘I’ll be happy when I move to that city, when we have more money, when I get that job, when I lose weight.’ But the correlation between life circumstances and happiness is smaller than you’d expect, because people adapt, and return to their baseline happiness.”
Money Doesn’t Make Us All That Happy
A host of studies have found people are experts at adjusting to their situations—whether it’s winning the lottery or suffering a paralyzing injury. In both extremes, people tend to return to a happiness set point.
“There is a definite myth that happiness is something we have to search for and find through our circumstances, and we either find it or we don’t.”
“It’s not that money doesn’t make us happy—it doesn’t make us as happy as we expect, or for as long as we think,” says Lyubomirsky. “Many studies have found people do get happier following a salary raise, but then get used to that income, change their goals and aspirations accordingly and feel they need more to be happy.”
Meanwhile, earning more money typically requires more time on the job—time that might otherwise be spent on happiness-boosting activities like hanging out with family and friends, exercising and volunteering.
10 Top Tips for Happiness
The good news, Lyubomirsky says, is that we can manipulate 40 percent of our happiness level by consciously adopting the behaviors of happy people. Here are the top 10 scientifically proven ways to increase well-being:
- Once a week, write down five things you are grateful for, in all aspects of your life.
- Practice optimistic thinking: Notice what’s right instead of what’s wrong and give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
- Nurturing relationships and proactively schedule time with family and friends.
- Commit to meaningful goals that are personally rewarding (instead of focusing on gaining the approval of others).
- Develop coping strategies to navigate setbacks.
- Learn to forgive.
- Spend time on “flow” experiences—those activities in which you are so absorbed that time seems to disappear, whether it’s sports, music, reading, writing, etc.
- Learn to meditate.
- Participate in a religious service at least once a week.
- Be physically active every day.
Get in the Happiness Habit
Lyubomirsky emphasizes that happiness requires sustained effort, commitment, discipline and self-control—similar to staying in physical shape. “I think it is work, but it’s very fulfilling, enjoyable work,” she says. “You have to be motivated. The good news is that some of the practices become habitual with time, and, like exercise, do get easier.”