Positive Psychology’s Advice on How to Be Happy

The following is a paper I wrote in 2009 summarizing all of positive psychology’s scientific insights into how to be happy. It’s a bit long, but it’s a fairly comprehensive summary of the research into happiness as of 2009.

The How of Happiness

Whether one is informed by folk-wisdom, philosophy, religion, or (like this paper) psychology, illuminating the way to happiness is no mean feat.  The devilish details of what will make any one person happy defy prediction. Ever since our ancestors evolved self-awareness and knowledge of good and evil, each of us has stood singly responsible for striving to navigate the choices of everyday life, both large and small, so as to bring ourselves happiness. And that is as it should be, because if life came with step by step instructions it would offer us no challenge, and without challenge our lives would quickly descend into tedium. However, like physicists seeking to understand and describe the physical universe, would-be theorists of happiness have posited certain general principles of how to lead the good life. These general principles come in the form of techniques and habits of thought and action that the happiest people tend to employ, and if adopted have the potential to make anyone happier.

Through studying the dispositions of identical twins separated at birth, according to two prominent researchers in the field, Ed Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener, different studies have estimated that as much as 50% and as little as 22% of our happiness is determined by genetics (Biswas-Diener 149). But contrary to what the scientific vogue was for a number of years, each individual’s happiness level is not set in stone (or DNA, as the case may be). A sizable portion of our happiness is still left up to environmental influences and how we choose to think and act.

When asked what would make us happier, many of us think of changes in our circumstances: a windfall of cash or a raise, getting a romantic partner, moving someplace with a better climate, etc. According to the research however, life-circumstances such as age, ethnicity, significant events that shaped our childhoods (e.g. parental divorce or being popular), where we grew up, where we live now, how wealthy we are, etc. account for only 10% of our happiness (Lyubomirsky 41). Furthermore, research shows that attempting to become happier by changing our circumstances and accumulating possessions will probably lead to failure. This is due to a phenomenon called “hedonic adaption”. This term refers to our remarkable ability to get used to things and as time goes on, to notice them less and less, which tends to eventually neutralize the impact of circumstantial changes on our happiness. For example, imagine eating some vanilla ice cream: the first few spoonfuls are delicious, but the next few are not quite as good, and the ones after that are almost flavorless. The same thing happens when we gain a new possession, move, get a raise, or even get married: for some amount of time we get a boost in happiness from these things, but we soon adapt and return to our baseline level of happiness, our “happiness set point” as researchers call it. So the bad news is that chasing after wealth, fame, and beauty will ultimately not lead to happiness. However, the sunnier flipside of hedonic adaption is that given enough time, we adapt just as efficiently to most negative life events and circumstances as well.

So if buying that Hybrid Lexus we’ve always wanted or winning the lottery won’t lead us to lasting happiness, what will? By studying happy people, psychologists have discovered the habits of behavior and thought that lead to lasting happiness.

Cognitive Strategies

The first such habit is optimism and positive thinking. It should come as no surprise to anyone, but how we choose to think has a major impact on our quality of life. Although perhaps not quite as all-powerful a technique as some self-help gurus would have us believe, thinking positively truly does have power. As the poet Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.” According to Martin Seligman, a leading figure in the Positive Psychology movement, there are two axes along which to measure a thought’s relative pessimism and optimism: permanence in time and pervasiveness in space (M. E. Seligman 88). Pessimistic people believe that the causes of negative events are permanent, whereas optimistic people believe them to be temporary (e.g. “You always nag” versus “You nag when I don’t clean my room”). Conversely, pessimistic people typically think that the causes of good events are temporary, while optimists believe them to be permanent (e.g. “My lucky day” versus “I’m always lucky”). Secondly, pessimists make universal explanations for their failures (e.g. “I’m repulsive”) whereas optimists make specific ones (e.g. “I’m repulsive to him”). This localizes the negative effects of failure in optimists to the specific area in their life affected, whereas pessimists are prone to let those effects spread to other areas of their lives. As M. E. Seligman says, “Finding permanent and universal causes of good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune and temporary and specific causes of good events is the practice of despair”.

To neutralize pessimistic thinking, Seligman recommends arguing with oneself and disputing one’s negative thoughts and beliefs. “The key to disputing one’s own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make one miserable” (M. E. Seligman 93). Much of the time, negative thinking is exaggerated or simply inaccurate. Ask yourself, what evidence do I have for this belief? How do I know that I got the worst grade in the class? What grade did the person sitting next to me get? In the rare case that the negative belief is indeed accurate, ask yourself what are the consequences of this fact? Are they really as dire as all that? Is there anything you can do to help the situation? Finally, ask yourself how useful the belief is. When forced to choose between believing what you hope to be true and what you fear to be true, remember that while they both have an equal chance of being factually accurate, only one will foster happiness.

Lyubomirsky advises against another negative habit of thought called over-thinking, or “self-focused rumination” as its known in the laboratory. Although it’s often passed off as common knowledge that one should try to find relief from unhappiness by focusing inwardly and reflecting on one’s feelings and situation, studies show that this practice prolongs or even worsens a bad mood, fosters pessimism, diminishes concentration and problem-solving ability, and saps one’s will to act. As Hamlet laments, “And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pith and moment/ With this regard their currents turn away,/ And lose the name of action.” To quell a negative spiral of over-thinking, Lyubomirsky suggests thinking “Stop!” or asking “Will this matter to me a year from now?”, or for full perspective “Will this matter to me on my deathbed?” She also recommends imitating what the happiest people do and distracting oneself with activity.

Lyubomirsky also cautions against judging oneself in comparison to others, a phenomenon called “social comparison”. As it turns out, the happiest people tend to judge themselves and their performance by their own internal standards and are unaffected by the relative performance of those around them. Unhappy people on the other hand are prone to anxiety and feelings of inadequecy when they see someone do something better than them. Indeed, happy people tend to rejoice in others’ successes and show concern at others’ failures and setbacks, whereas unhappy people tend to do the opposite, feeling insecure and envious at other people’s accomplishments and relieved at their failures.

Finally, one of the most powerful cognitive strategies for increasing happiness is savoring. Savoring is “the awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” and “any thoughts or behaviors capable of ‘generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment’” (M. E. Seligman 107) (Lyubomirsky 191). When we savor an accomplishment, the bouquet of a fine wine, or the sight of a beautiful sunset, we experience these things more fully and derive the maximum amount of pleasure and happiness from them. Savoring could come in the form of basking in praise and congratulations, expressing gratitude, marveling, luxuriating or indulging the senses, and losing oneself in the moment (M. E. Seligman 108). It’s associated with “intense and frequent happiness”, self-confidence, extroversion, satisfaction, and optimism (Lyubomirsky 192). As well as savoring the present moment, we can also savor the past and future by “reminiscing about the good old days” and “anticipating and fantasizing about upcoming positive events” (Lyubomirsky 191). According to the two leading scholars in the field of savoring, Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff, some of the best ways to facilitate savoring something is sharing it with others, creating a mental picture of it, sharpening one’s perceptions of the most positive or interesting aspects of it, and letting oneself become completely absorbed in the experience of it. They also advise that one should not be afraid of taking pride in one’s accomplishments, but as is part and parcel with positive thinking and savoring, to revel in them and remind oneself how hard one’s worked to achieve them. The same is true of appreciating good news, both when it is about oneself and when it is about someone else.

Lyubomirsky also cites the importance of relishing ordinary experiences. She reports that in one study, depressed subjects who took a few minutes to relish an everyday routine that they usually hurry through, such as eating breakfast—and also wrote down “in what ways they had experienced the event differently as well as how that felt compared with the times when they rushed through it”—showed “significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression (Lyubomirsky 193). The same thing was found in a study where healthy people instructed to savor “two pleasurable experiences per day by reflecting on each for two or three minutes and trying to make the pleasure last as long and as intensely as possible” (Lyubomirsky 194). Meditating on the impermanence of something (e.g. senior year is almost over) is another excellent way of encouraging appreciation of it.

Emotional Strategies

When someone wrongs us, our first instinct as human beings is to retaliate or simply avoid the transgressor. Needless to say, both these behaviors can cause problems. They can damage our health and happiness, destroy relationships, and perhaps even harm society at large. Forgiveness can’t erase the past, but it can help us move on. Psychologist Everett L. Worthington Jr. came up with a process of forgiveness called REACH (M. E. Seligman 79). As Worthington described his process on a health website, “First you recall the hurt objectively, without blame and self-victimization. Then you empathize by trying to imagine the viewpoint of the person who wronged one. The altruistic part involves getting people to think about a time they were forgiven and how that felt. When it’s time to commit to forgiveness, people usually say, not yet, but when they finally do, they must then hold on to forgiveness.”

We all have occasion to feel anger along with its many variations (impatience, annoyance, rage) on a daily basis, and not just when we have a major trespass to forgive. Over a century ago, Freud theorized that suppressing anger was unhealthy and ultimately futile as it was bound to resurface in some other, often undesirable way. However, research points to just the opposite conclusion: that anger and its expression are bad for one’s physical and psychological health (and often one’s interpersonal relationships to boot), and that if left alone, anger will simply dissipate. As the Dalai Lama said when asked by reporters if he wasn’t ever angry at the Chinese, “They stole my country. Why should I let them steal my mind?” (Levine 5).

Of course, this Zen-like injunction to simply let one’s anger flow away when something makes it rear its ugly head should not be heeded instead of taking action to solve one’s problems, but in concert with doing so. These two styles of dealing with anger belong to the more general coping-strategies of “emotion-focused coping” and “problem-focused coping”, both of which are vitally important for dealing with stress, hardship and trauma. In emotion-focused coping, one seeks to combat negative emotion directly by accepting the situation with serenity, positively reinterpreting it (perhaps even construing benefit in it), and distracting oneself with other things like exercise, the beauty of nature, or the pleasant company of friends (Lyubomirsky 153). On the other hand, problem-focused coping is where one does something about it, as Hamlet put it: “to take arms against a sea of troubles, / and by opposing end them.” Here are some examples Lyubomirsky provides of “how people describe themselves when using problem-focused coping:

  • I concentrate my efforts on doing something about it.
  • I do what has to be done, one step at a time.
  • I try to come up with a strategy about what to do.
  • I make a plan of action.
  • I put aside other activities in order to concentrate on this.
  • I try to get advice from someone about what to do”

Practicing gratitude is another important happiness boosting strategy. According to Lyubomirsky, one characteristic of the happiest people is that “they are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have”. Practicing gratitude focuses our thinking on everything that’s right with our lives and the world around us. In one study, participants who were asked to write down five things they were grateful for once a week for ten weeks in a row tended to feel more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Writing a letter of gratitude to someone important in one’s life is another powerful method for boosting happiness, and delivering the letter in person and reading it aloud is even more potent. Similarly, studies done with both students and adults with chronic illnesses have shown that on days that they “strive to express their gratitude, they also experience more positive emotions (that is, feelings like interest, excitement, joy, and pride) and are more likely to report helping someone, to feel connected with others, and even to catch more hours of quality sleep”. Additionally, several other studies have shown that consistently grateful people are relatively happier, more energetic, more hopeful and likely to report experiencing more frequent positive emotions, as well as less prone to depression, anxiety, loneliness, envy, and neuroses (Lyubomirsky 90). However, it’s difficult to say to what extent gratitude fosters these characteristics, and to what extent those good characteristics simply cause people to be grateful. Either way though, it’s undeniable that counting one’s blessings on a regular basis is a boon to happiness.

Goal-Centered Strategies

One of the most important elements of happiness is striving for personally meaningful goals. Researcher has found that people who actively pursue their dreams are much happier than those who don’t, and the process of pursuing a goal is just as important for happiness as its attainment (Lyubomirsky 206). Working to accomplish goals gives us a feeling of purpose, control, competency, and self-esteem. According to Lyubomirsky, goals with certain characteristics will make us happier than those without them. Ideally, pursuits should be inherently rewarding, authentic to our interests and values, as well as flexible and non-conflicting with our other goals. Additionally, goals that involve approaching a desirable outcome are better than those that involve avoiding a negative one. Research also shows that the psychological benefits accrued from working towards changing our circumstance (e.g. moving into a new apartment) fade quickly once we accomplish our goal due to hedonic adaption. However, goals that are activity-based boost our well-being for much longer. People are most likely to achieve their goals and attain the maximum enjoyment from the process by starting with a dream, breaking it down into baby step sub-goals, identifying and preparing for any potential challenges or setbacks that might make one want to quit, and finally executing the plan.

Social Strategies

Social relationships are a key element of happiness. Two of the most vital needs of human beings are to love and be loved, and to satisfy them we need other people. No man is an island, even shy introverts: one study revealed that both extroverts and introverts experienced a boost in positive mood when around other people (Biswas-Diener 52). According to Lyubomirsky, “The happier a person is, the more likely he or she is to have a large circle of friends or companions, a romantic partner, and ample social support. The happier the person, the more likely she is to be married and to have a fulfilling and long-lasting marriage. The happier the person, the more likely she is to be satisfied with her family life and social activities, to consider her partner her “great love,” and to receive emotional and tangible support from friends, supervisors, and coworkers” (Lyubomirsky 138). People with strong social support are better able to cope with stress and trauma, have better health, and live longer. Indeed, researchers have found that while no one variable can account for happiness, good social relations were necessary for happiness to be possible (E. D. Seligman).

Another excellent way to boost happiness is doing kind things for others. The 14th Dalai Lama said “kindness is my religion”. There are of course limits to what science can measure; no one, for example, has yet come up with a study empirically examining the benefits of leading a life dedicated to service to others, and no one is likely to. So the full benefits of kindness and service may be beyond what science can prove. Nevertheless, psychologists have reached some solid conclusions about kindness on a more everyday scale. First, “doing acts of kindness on a regular basis makes people happy for an extended period”, but this is only true if the would-be altruist is allowed to vary the act of kindness he or she performs (Lyubomirsky 129). According to Lyubomirsky, the long term benefits of consistently doing kind things for others are seeing others in a more positive light, greater integration into one’s social community, increased ability to be grateful, relief from guilt and distress at the plight of whoever one is helping as well as from self-focused rumination and self-consciousness, an increased sense of purpose in life, and in general a much more positive opinion of oneself as someone who is kind and compassionate (Lyubomirsky 130).

Happiness Now

There are many experiences that can make us happy in the present moment, but one of the most universal and satisfying is the experience of flow, also referred to colloquially as being “in the zone”, “on the ball”, and “in the groove” (Flow: Wikipedia). “Flow” is the name psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave to a curious phenomenon he discovered while studying painters and their creative process whereby they would often ignore discomfiture and even pain so as to not have to stop painting, yet once their work was finished, they lost all interest in the product, suggesting that it was the process of creation rather than its fruits that gave them happiness. There are several components of flow. To start, there must be clear goals to the activity and immediate feedback on one’s performance. One’s attention must be wholly absorbed in the activity. As one masters new skills, the difficulty of an activity must also increase for it to continue producing flow. The trick is to find the sweet spot between too little challenge, which will surely cause boredom, and too much challenge, which will lead to anxiety and frustration. When in flow, time can seem to stop, slow down, or speed up. Emotions, self-consciousness, and thoughts of the past and future are temporarily extinguished. As Csikszentmihalyi’s initial research with painters in flow suggests, being in flow does not necessarily imply comfort or pleasure; in fact, flow activities can be quite stressful and discomforting. However, they more than make up for it by being deeply enjoyable and satisfying. They’re so intrinsically rewarding that they can even be addictive. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi points to how flow is a natural high that merges our experience with our actions and environment, leaving no attention to attend to anything else.

Many activities can allow us to experience flow. Of course, the more rewarding the activity and the more closely it attains the guidelines set forth in the previous paragraph, the more successful it will be. Some of the most flow-inducing hobbies and professions Csikszentmihalyi mentions are rock climbing, chess playing, and performing surgery. But virtually any activity can be retooled into a flow activity. Lyubomirsky gives the example of someone who came up with a mini-flow activity for while he was driving. In it, he would tap his fingers on the steering wheel in synchrony with a rhythm or riff in the music he was listening to. Some activities are certainly more conducive to flow than others, but in truth, whether we experience flow from moment to moment is completely up to how we choose to order our consciousness. Even if outer activity is impossible or undesirable, perhaps because of being in a prison cell or dentist’s office, one can still do flow activities in one’s head. Some examples are silently reciting poetry, fantasizing, maintaining a running dialogue in which one tries to make as many jokes and interesting observations about the environment as one can, and composing funny limericks. The possibilities are endless.

Many of us like to spend our free time doing relaxing, low-challenge activities like watching TV; however, in a fascinating survey, Csikszentmihalyi showed that the group of workers under study actually found their work much more rewarding than their leisure time. This is because work typically provided them with more opportunities for flow than their relaxing yet relatively boring leisure activities. Perhaps one prescription for the epidemic of depression that has swept industrialized nations in the past sixty years is to start to see work as a vital and enjoyable part of a happy life, and to see leisure time at least partially as an opportunity to engage in freely chosen challenging activities that allow us to experience flow.

And there you have it, the habits of thought and behavior that science tells us help bring about happiness. Although a certain portion of our happiness can be accounted for by genetics and our circumstances, much of our happiness is in our hands. By regularly working to cultivate optimism and positive thinking, counting our blessings, avoiding over-thinking and social comparison, practicing forgiveness, controlling our anger, coping effectively, savoring life’s pleasures, immersing ourselves in flow, striving to complete our goals, and nurturing our social relationships, we have the power to become lastingly happy. No body of scientific literature, nor any ideology, philosophy, or religion, can tell us precisely how to lead a good life, nor do the work of living our lives for us. However, we may glean some wisdom from examining psychology’s general principles of living well. And ultimately, what is happiness if not striving with wisdom as the guide?

Works Cited

Biswas-Diener, Ed Diener and Robert. Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perrenial, 1990.

Flow: Wikipedia. 09 01 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)&gt;.

Levine, Marvin. The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erblbaum Associates, 2000.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How Of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

Seligman, Ed Diener & Martin E.P. “Very Happy People.” Psychological Science (2002).

Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York, London, Toronto, Syndey: Free Press, 2002.

WebMD. 1 1 2009 <http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/forgive-forget?page=2&gt;.