Sonja Lyubomirsky (pronounced Loo-boh-meer-ski) is a professor of psychology at UC Riverside. The majority of Sonja’s research career has been devoted to studying human happiness. She has conducted dozens of “happiness interventions,” testing what types of practices lead to increased well-being and other benefits.In 2013, Penguin Press published her book “The myths of happiness: what should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does.” In 2008, Penguin published “The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want.” She has regularly appeared in major media outlets including The New York Times, NPR, and NBC’s Today Show. She has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, and her Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University.
Why is the scientific study of happiness important? In short, because most people believe happiness is meaningful, desirable, and an important, worthy goal, because happiness is one of the most salient and significant dimensions of human experience and emotional life, because happiness yields numerous rewards for the individual, and because it makes for a better, healthier, stronger society. The benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes (e.g., greater productivity and higher quality of work), larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life. Lyubomirsky conducts experiments to test what practices (including doing acts of kindness, savoring positive events, expressing gratitude, and visualizing one’s dreams), when done with effort and commitment, lead to increased happiness.
Lyubomirsky’s research clearly demonstrates that you would be happier if you cultivated an “attitude of gratitude.” Gratitude promotes the savoring of positive life experiences, bolsters self-worth and self-esteem, helps people cope with stress and trauma, encourages moral behavior, helps build social bonds, inhibits invidious comparisons with others, may diminish or deter negative emotions, and prevents people from taking the good things in their lives for granted.
On Hedonic Adaptation
If people become accustomed to (and take for granted) anything positive that happens to them, how can they ever become happier? A new model suggests that adaptation to positive experience proceeds via two paths: through diminished positive emotions, and through increased aspirations. The key to achieving increased and lasting well-being lies in effortful, intentional activities that slow down or preclude the positive adaptation process. Current research is aimed at understanding what produces materialism and consumerism, and how to design interventions that significantly depress people’s aspirations and bolster their humility, thereby allowing them to step off the hedonic treadmill and become more thrifty.
People who do acts of kindness become happier over time. Research has found that kindness, or prosocial behavior, correlates with and promotes well-being. Happy people not only desire to be kind, but they also are more attuned to kindness, and more likely to behave in kind ways. People can become happier simply by “counting kindness” for one week—that is, by keeping track of their own kind behavior towards others. One study found that those recalling a greater number of kind behaviors obtained the largest increases in happiness. People who help others are likely to feel good about themselves and more confident in their abilities to enact change. Furthermore, their prosocial behavior likely helps build better relationships and trigger upward spirals of positive emotions and positive interpersonal exchanges.
An intervention study conducted by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade in 2005 asked students to perform (rather than recall) five acts of kindness per week over a period of six weeks. They found that well-being in the kindness group increased compared to the control group when the five acts were performed all in one day, but not when they were spread across the week. A cross-cultural study showed that both U.S. and South Korean students reported increases in well-bring when performing three kind acts once a week over six weeks (Layous, Lee et al., 2013). Finally, children have been shown to benefit from performing kind acts as well. In a field experiment, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders (ages 9 to 11) who performed kind acts not only improved in well-being, but also increased in peer acceptance (Layous et al., 2012).
Another way to reliably increase well-being is by practicing optimistic thinking—for example, by visualizing one’s “best possible selves” in the future. A pioneering study (King, 2001) instructed participants to “imagine everything has gone as well as it possibly could” once a day for four consecutive days and to write about it for 20 minutes. Individuals who engaged in this activity experienced a greater boost to their positive moods than those who wrote about a trauma or both trauma and their best possible selves. In addition, those who wrote about their best possible selves reported relatively less illness five months later. A more recent follow-up study impressively demonstrated that even two minutes of writing about “best possible selves” on two consecutive days could result in similar benefits (Burton & King, 2008).
These results were replicated in a four-week study conducted by Lyubomirsky and Sheldon in 2006: Participants who imagined and wrote about their best possible selves witnessed both immediate and sustained boosts in positive affect compared to those performing a control exercise. In follow-up studies, students who wrote about their best possible selves for 15 minutes a week over eight weeks (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011) and community-dwelling adults who wrote for 10 minutes a week over six weeks (Boehm et al., 2011) both increased in well-being compared to controls. Notably, the increases in well-being between experimental and control groups remained even six months and one month, respectively, after the interventions ended. Finally, a study asking students to write about their best possible selves once a week for four weeks found that participants who read a persuasive peer testimonial became happier than those who read neutral information or completed a control task, highlighting the beneficial role of social support (Layous, Nelson et al., 2013).