Toward a Durable Happiness - Sonja Lyubomi ?· CHAPTER 2 Toward a Durable Happiness ... street. Psychologists…

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    Toward a Durable Happiness

    Jaime L. Kurtz and Sonja Lyubomirsky

    When trying to envision a happy day, or a happy life, what imagescome to mind? For some people, it might be sharing a meal with goodfriends and family members while laughing together, telling stories, andfeeling loved. For others, happiness may come from accomplishing an im-portant goal and basking in the glory of a job well done. And for othersstill, happiness may be the byproduct of doing good deeds, helping others,and believing that the world is a better place because of it. Although peoplemay vary a good deal in what they think will make them happy, an over-whelming majority of U.S. residents place finding happiness very highon their list of major life goals (Diener, Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995).

    How exactly do you find happiness? This question has been posed forthousands of years, and although many self-help books have attempted tooffer answers, their authors have often based their conclusions, however wellmeaning, on their own personal, idiosyncratic experiences. Only recently hasscientific evidence emerged to suggest a possible path to lasting happinessthat is effective for the majority of people. By scientific, we mean thatresearchers have conducted rigorous experiments to determine whether par-ticular strategies for increasing happiness actually work. The present chapterreviews this evidence and provides practical suggestions that you can use tocreate long-term, or sustainable, changes in your level of well-being.


    Before we offer you suggestions on how to become a happier person, itis important to establish whether happiness is a desirable goal. Of course,

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    everyone knows that happiness feels good to the person who is experienc-ing it. But some may argue that happy people are prone to be lazy, shallow,or unmotivated. However, recent evidence suggests quite the opposite.Rather than being simple and complacent, happy people are energetic, cre-ative, and productive in the workplace, cooperative, and motivated to helpothers. In the social realm, happy individuals have more friends, more satis-fying social interactions, and a lower likelihood of divorce. And in terms ofphysical and mental health, happy people have stronger immune systems,cope more effectively with stress, and, most strikingly, even live longer(Fredrickson, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). In sum, happi-ness doesnt merely feel good. It carries a wide variety of benefits for theindividual, as well as for families, workplaces, and communities.


    When we talk about how happiness can be increased, we arent just talk-ing about creating the sorts of momentary bursts you may get when yourfavorite team wins an important game or when you find a dollar on thestreet. Psychologists are quite good at boosting peoples moods over shortperiods of time. Techniques like giving people a piece of candy, playingpleasant music, or providing positive feedback all produce momentaryincreases in positive affect (Schwarz & Strack, 1999). The problem is thatthese increases dont last. As well explain below, peoples moods respondto and fluctuate along with changes in their environments. When some-thing wonderful happens, they report feeling happier. When somethingunfortunate happens, they feel sad. However, these changes are oftenshort-lived, and people return to their baseline level of happiness fairlyquickly (Brickman & Campbell, 1971). The purpose of the researchdescribed in this chapter is to create lasting, sustainable changes in peoplesdispositional level of happiness. This can be thought of as how happy a per-son feels, on average, over a fairly long period of time.

    Most researchers define happiness as consisting of three components:frequent instances of positive affect, infrequent instances of negative affect,and a high level of life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1995). Positive and nega-tive affect are simply experiences of good feelings (e.g., excited, joyful,pleased) and bad feelings (e.g., irritable, sad, tense), respectively. Life satis-faction, by contrast, is a more global, cognitive evaluation of how content aperson is with the state of his or her life. Those with a high level of life sat-isfaction would agree with statements such as, The conditions of my lifeare excellent (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985).

    Its important to add to our description of what we mean by happinessthat it is thought of as a subjective state, meaning that self-reports are thestandard way of determining how happy an individual is. Although a fewresearchers have assessed happiness by asking friends and family to givetheir impressions of how happy a particular person is (e.g., Sandvik, Diener,& Seidlitz, 1993), ultimately the final judge is whoever lives inside [the]persons skin (Myers & Diener, 1995, p. 11). Therefore, the term

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    subjective well-being (or simply well-being) is often used as a syno-nym for happiness, as it will be throughout this chapter.


    Is it possible to actually become happier? You may be surprised to learnthat, until fairly recently, there was very little scientific data to tell uswhether or not people can lastingly boost their happiness. In fact, in previ-ous years, researchers were doubtful about the possibility of becoming hap-pier. Two reasons underlie their pessimismfirst, happiness is partiallydetermined by genetics, and, second, people tend to adapt (or get used to)most positive life experiences, and what initially brought them great pleas-ure gradually ceases to do so. Therefore, some say, any attempts to increasehappiness would be futile, because people would simply return to their ge-netically determined happiness baseline following a pleasant experience.We describe the evidence for this perspective below.

    The Roles of Heredity and Personality

    The baseline level of happiness, or set point, is higher for some peoplethan for others. In other words, some of you are naturally, or disposition-ally, happier than others. Years of research on fraternal and identical twinshas led psychologists to conclude that this baseline is determined by genet-ics (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). In other words, if you had an identicaltwin, he or she would share your height, intelligence, and predisposition tohypertension, and your level of happiness as well.

    The fact that happiness has a high heritability is also consistent withthe finding that a persons level of happiness is strongly related to hisor her standing on several personality traits (Diener & Lucas, 1999).For example, people who are highly neurotic tend to be less happy, andextraverts are inclined to be happier than introverts. Traits such as theseare relatively fixed, meaning that, throughout the life span, people gener-ally do not change much in where they stand on extraversion, neuroti-cism, and so forth (McCrae & Costa, 1994). Some researchers have usedthese findings to argue that happiness is yet another personality traitstable and resistant to any kind of meaningful change (Costa, McCrae, &Zonderman, 1987).

    Hedonic Adaptation

    The theory of hedonic adaptation provides another source of pessimismabout the possibility of lastingly increasing happiness. Simply put, this isthe tendency for the emotional impact of both positive and negative eventsto diminish over time (Brickman & Campbell, 1971; Diener, Lucas, &Napa Scollon, 2006). To illustrate, think about a time in your life whensomething extremely good happened to you. It may be something you haddaydreamed about and strove for, such as getting accepted into the college

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    of your choice, winning an important race in a track meet, or successfullyasking your crush out on a date. How did you feel immediately after? Mostlikely, you felt exuberant. You probably thought about the event constantly,replaying it in your mind, telling your friends and family all about it, andfeeling certain that the joy you were experiencing would last forever.

    Of course, your joy did not last forever. Although thinking about yournew life as a college student, your athletic prowess, or your upcoming datemay have provided a burst of pleasure, later thoughts of the event graduallyfailed to reproduce the initial joy you felt. This is due to the process ofhedonic adaptation, in which events that were initially laden with emotiongradually lose their intensity (Brickman & Campbell, 1971). From the lifealtering to the mundane, there is a wealth of evidence that people adapt toa variety of events. For example, people adapt to the outcome of a presi-dential election or a sporting event, the end of a romantic relationship, fail-ing to receive a job promotion, being insulted, winning the lottery,becoming paralyzed, losing a loved one, being diagnosed with a serious ill-ness, and so on (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978; Gilbert, Pinel,Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1997; Sieff, Dawes, & Loewenstein, 1999;Wortman, Silver, & Kessler, 1993).

    To further illustrate, researchers Suh, Diener, and Fujita (1996) askedcollege students to report their level of subjective well-being and the num-ber of positive and negative life experiences that they had experienced overthe past 4 years. Although many students experienced major life events,such as the death of a family member, the beginning or end of a romanticrelationship, becoming engaged or married, gaining admission to graduateschool, and finding a job, there was no relationship between the number ofrecalled positive and negative events and students reports of happiness, ifthe events had occurred more than 6 months in the past. These studiessuggest that, despite the elation or heartbreak that an event may initiallybring, the duration of these emotional reactions is often surprisingly short-lived. In other words, trying to become happier by changing the circum-stances of your lifesuch as your relationship, job, health, or schoolingisnot a strategy that is likely to succeed in the long-term.

    Happiness Cannot Be Consciously Pursued

    Finally, when people have the overt, conscious goal of making them-selves happier, it sometimes backfires. Research by Schooler, Ariely, andLoewenstein (2003) has found that instructing people to try and feel ashappy as they possibly could actually led to a decrease in momentary happymood, relative to those who were not asked to try to be happy. Constantlyassessing and monitoring happiness levels was similarly counterproductive.It seems that happiness is very often the byproduct of an enjoyable experi-ence, but perhaps it cannot be a deliberate goal in and of itself. Or, as Na-thaniel Hawthorne eloquently put it, Happiness is as a butterfly which,when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit downquietly, may alight upon you.

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    Some researchers have used the findings we have just described to sup-port the claim that the quest to improve happiness is a fruitless effort(Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). Fortunately, both the fact that happiness has agenetic component and the fact that we adapt to positive life events doesnot mean that it is impossible to become happier. New research suggeststhat a persons level of happiness is not set in stone, and that he or she canraise this level by taking advantage of certain intentional activities.

    As explained below, the sustainable happiness model (Lyubomirsky,Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) proposes that happiness is determined by threefactors: The genetically determined set point, life circumstances, and inten-tional activities (see Figure 2.1). The implication of this model is that alarge percentage of your happiness is determined by your own conscious,effortful activities and, thus, that increases in happiness can be successfullyachieved.

    The Set Point

    The largest piece of the pie is known as the set pointquite literally, thepoint at which ones happiness level is set, or fixed. People tend to have alevel of happiness that they gravitate back to following a significant event,and this set point is higher for some people than for others. In otherwords, some are born happier than others. You probably know people whoalways seem to be in good spirits and are habitually looking on the brightside. As the saying goes, when life gives them lemons, they make lemonade.On the other hand, you are likely also familiar with people who are gener-ally unhappy. They see the glass as half empty, and find it hard to derivemuch pleasure from their daily lives. Psychologists would say that these twosets of people have different set points for well-being. Years of researchfrom a field called behavioral genetics has led psychologists to concludethat this set point for happiness is determined by genetics (Lykken &

    Figure 2.1. What Determines Happiness?

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    Tellegen, 1996). For example, identical twins are extremely similar in howgenerally happy (or unhappy) they are, even when raised thousands of milesapart, but fraternal twins (whether raised together or apart) are no moresimilar to one another than regular siblings. Thus, willfully trying to raiseyour set point by altering your genes is currently impossible. Clearly, the keyto lasting increased happiness lies elsewhere.


    You may be surprised to learn that life circumstances account for a mere10% of peoples happiness (Argyle, 1999; Diener et al., 1999). By circum-stances, we mean factors that constitute the background of your life. Forexample, if you were to write a brief autobiography, it would include agreat deal of information about your life circumstances. Examples includeyour demographics (e.g., gender, ethnicity), personal experiences (e.g., pasttraumas and triumphs), life status variables (e.g., marital status, educationlevel, health, and income), your physical appearance, and the physical set-ting where you live.

    Researchers argue that altering your life circumstances is not a promisingway of increasing happiness...


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