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The How of Happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.
Reading time for this article: 10 minutes (there is also a video at the bottom of the article).
“The How of Happiness” is, in my opinion, by far the best $15 investment a person could make in achieving lasting increases in their personal happiness. (Last I checked it was $10.20 on Amazon.com.) Because I think so highly of the book, I was thrilled to get to interview the author, Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, last week. What follows is some information about the book, and then the interview.
Dr Lyubomirsky is a psychology PhD and one of the world’s leading happiness researchers (she’s currently a Professor at University of California, Riverside). Her book, “The How of Happiness” published in 2008, summarizes the last several decades of scientific research on what’s effective for increasing happiness (The book isn’t aimed at people who are clinically depressed. If you think you might be clinically depressed you should seek out treatment that has been proven to work for depression, such as CBT).
The book explains how to use 12 types of strategies that research studies have shown really work for increasing happiness. The main reason I recommend this book so highly is that the advice is all based on scientific evidence, something that’s very uncommon in self help books about happiness. And while it’s science-based, it’s fun to read and easy to understand.
Other strengths of the book are that reader is treated like they’re smart and a lot of diversity in people’s lifestyles and preferences is catered for. The book isn’t too prescriptive or dictatorial. It encourages people to understand the principles of why and how each of the strategies work and to “self experiment” to find which ways of using the strategies work best for them as an individual.
After the introductory material, there’s a “Person-Activity Fit” questionnaire to help readers narrow down which strategies they’re likely to benefit from the most. This way, people can choose to read about the 3-4 strategies that are likely to be most effective for them rather than necessarily reading about all 12.
Once you pick which strategy you’d like to try, there is another very short questionnaire (4 questions) that provides a quick, numerical measure of personal happiness. This questionnaire is for self monitoring your results. The idea is to do the 4 item questionnaire before you start using whichever happiness-increasing activity you’ve chosen, and then re-do the questionnaire, for example once a week, to see for yourself if what you’re doing is working.
Lots of the techniques explained in the book are really simple to implement. While they need to be done regularly to work, they’re not necessarily time consuming. So there are plenty of options for you to self experiment. However, if I’ve got one word of caution it’s that, while many of the strategies are straightforward, some are likely to be hard for people to successfully put into practice on their own. It’s often hard for people to change longstanding patterns of thinking or behaviour so if reading the book makes you realize that something is a significant issue for you but seems too big to fix on your own then I would recommend some sessions with a psychology PhD to help you make the changes you want.
The How of Happiness is one of my favorite books. It packs an incredible amount of science into one book but is written in a way that’s fun to read and not at all overwhelming for non-psychology PhDs. It provides an outstanding resource people can use to educate themselves about the real science of happiness rather than falling prey to claims about happiness that are made by unqualified people without any research evidence to back them up.
You can read my interview with Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky below.
Alice: Who would you most recommend the book for?
Sonja: It’s pretty broad. It’s aimed at anyone who wants to become happier. Not everyone wants to be happier, so I’m not saying that they should, but most people say they want their lives to be richer, more flourishing, more fulfilling. So it’s a broad audience. I have a lot of science in the book to back up the recommendations I make. I think that’s really important, and it distinguishes it from many other books that are just based on people’s opinions or anecdotes. But, the science is accessible – it’s not a scientific book, it just has research to support the claims.
Alice: What do you think about people who are mildly depressed, or who are recovered from clinical depression but still unhappy, using the strategies in the book?
Sonja: I did expect that I would have a lot of readers who were mildly depressed or maybe even very depressed, and for that reason I included the chapter in the back about what depression is and how it’s treated. I thought that those individuals needed to know more about those kinds of options because I didn’t want them to think they should just read the book and they’re done. Happiness increasing strategies are very effective at increasing positive emotions, which has the effect of neutralizing negative emotions. But for many people – if you’re clinically depressed or have a biological basis for your depression – it’s not enough. So that’s why I included the chapter about depression. It was originally one of the first chapters. I wanted people to read that first. Then my editor thought was too much of a downer. She didn’t want to start on a negative note. So we put in the back, more like an appendix.
Alice: Of the research you’re doing at the moment, what are you the most excited about?
Sonja: The most exciting, newer interest of mine is focused on studying the process of “hedonic adaptation,” which I described in the book. [“Hedonic adaptation” refers to people becoming happier for awhile after something good happens in their lives but then drifting back to their previous level of happiness].
What I argue is that hedonic adaptation is one of the biggest obstacles to becoming happier because if you adapt to anything positive that happens to you then all good things (and even the happiness strategies that you enact) you can adapt to. Then you can never become happier. People have measured hedonic adaptation, but I’m studying how the process unfolds over time, and maybe even more importantly, how do we thwart it? How do we slow it down? How do we prevent adaptation? So, for example, when we get married, how do we prevent adaptation to the marriage/our spouse? When we get a great new job, how do we slow down taking the job for granted?
Alice: Where at you at with that research at the moment? Is it in the beginning or later stages?
Sonja: Beginning. I have a theory, I’ve written a couple of grant proposals to try to seek research funding, and I’ve done a couple of experiments at this point. I’ve published a book chapter on it but haven’t published empirical papers on it yet.
Alice: What’s your theory? What do you think the mechanisms of hedonic adaptation are?
Sonja: I could talk to you for hours about that. The most important are Unexpectedness, Variety, and Attention (UVA).
Surprise – The more surprise there is, the more something is unexpected, the less we adapt to it. So for example, a relationship has a lot of surprises, it’s not always the same. So we adapt to it much slower than, for example a new car, which is the same every time.
Variety – The second one, variety, is very much related to surprise. We adapt less when things are varied.
Attention – Attention is really important. What we pay attention to and what we appreciate in our lives determines whether we adapt to it. So you buy a new car and the first time you get in it you’re like “this is so great, I love the car,” but then after awhile you don’t pay attention to it – you just get in and you drive and you don’t even think about it. So manipulating your attention or directing it towards the good things in your life – maybe your health, or your house or whatever, then that’s very important.
Alice: That’s interesting! One of my favorite things about the book is that explains so many different ways of enacting the 12 strategies and that you shouldn’t keep doing the same things. You should “mix it up” to get the best results.
Sonja: That’s right. There’s maybe hundreds of strategies you can try because you can do them so many different ways.
Alice: You’ve written/talked about why people should care that the happiness advice they receive is based on research. Could you explain some more about why that’s important?
Sonja: It’s funny but some people ask me that question seriously, like they don’t understand. There was actually a blog written about my book and it was sort of positive, but then it said – “why should I care about whether a strategy has been proven in a study to work? I only care if it works for me.” You would never have that attitude about having surgery, right? So let’s say you needed to have a medical treatment, you’d want to be sure it had been supported by research. Or, if you were going to take a new drug, then you’d want to be sure there had been lots of clinical trials to show the drug works and it doesn’t have bad side effects. I think it’s very similar. When you’re going to put a lot of effort into something, and what I talk about does need a lot of effort, you want to know that it has been shown to be effective. I absolutely think that research science is so important, and as I mentioned before, most of the recommendations out there whether in magazines, blogs or books, they’re just someone’s opinion. The thing with psychology is that anyone can be a couch psychology PhD. Most anyone can say “I know what makes people happy” but it’s just based on their experience. You really need to look at the bigger picture and do it systematically. There are a lot of old wives tales and folk myths out there, and we need scientists to test these to see if they’re true or not.
First, we need to test whether something is true at all. Secondly, we need to test the optimal conditions under which strategies work. It might be frequency or variety or how you do it. Also, there’s an interaction between person and strategy – some people need to work on increasing their happiness in a certain way and other people need to do it in a different way. Really what I’m interested in is why and how do the strategies work. It’s kind of like studying a drug. If you’re studying a drug, if you know why and how a drug works, you can develop other drugs. It’s important to understand the mechanisms – the “why”. That’s why my book is called the “how of happiness”.
Alice: I read in your blog that you’ve started to do some research on the law of attraction and I wondered what had happened with that.
I didn’t end up doing that. I’ll explain… I really hate “The Secret” [book] – it’s crap.
Sonja: We agree on that.
Sonja: We had planned to do a study where we used “The Secret” as the control condition. [“Control condition” is similar to a “placebo.” In happiness experiments, researchers test something they expect to work for increasing happiness against something they expect not to work. In this case, the Secret was going to be the thing they expected not to work. It’s similar to what happens in drug trials when researchers give one group of people a new drug and give another group a pill with no medicine in it, to see if one group improves more than the other].
The reason we didn’t was that we designed the study and we were about to run it, and we realized that part of “The Secret” is positive thinking and gratitude. But, positive thinking and gratitude aren’t a placebo, they’ve been shown to increase happiness. There’s a little part of The Secret – the positive thinking aspect – that is going to be effective. We didn’t want to have effective and ineffective components in the same condition. But most of The Secret is total crap.
We ended up doing a study in which the placebo condition was having people listen to classical music.
Alice: What was the active condition in that study?
Gratitude. Either people wrote gratitude letters or they listened to classical music. That study was actually done with depressed participants. We’re writing it up right now. It was interesting. The depressed participants initially did worse when they wrote gratitude letters, and we think it was because it was really hard for them. When you’re really depressed anything is difficult and hard, and then to sit down and write a letter I think was a really trying task. And also when you’re really negative, it’s really hard to turn your mind around and try to be positive. But, then when we did a follow up three weeks later, the depressed people who had written gratitude letters did feel better.
Alice: Have you done any other happiness studies with depressed samples?
We did another study where we had depressed people savor the good things in their lives, and that worked. It wasn’t a big effect. It was like thinking about your senses – like imagine not being able to see or hear, or things like that. Like really appreciating your sight or your hearing, or that you have opportunities in your life, Appreciate your opportunities, appreciate your health. It worked but the effect wasn’t that strong.
Alice: Is there anything you wish you had included in the book that you couldn’t include for space or that has come out very recently?
I thought about talking about self esteem but there isn’t really strong evidence that you can increase someone’s self esteem. It’s very hard to change but obviously having healthy self esteem is very important to happiness.
There’s some research on self affirmation I could’ve included. They’re not happiness studies but they can be applied to happiness. In those studies researchers ask people to think about their biggest value – a value that they care about. So let’s say their biggest value is honesty, having self control, patience, democracy, or whatever. It could be anything. So they have people write about that value, and for example, one study showed that students got higher grades by doing this. So I’m thinking clearly it could be used for positive interventions.
There’s lots of work out there that’s relevant. I could’ve included neuroscience but I don’t know so much about that field.
I’ve taken a lot of notes for if I ever do an update. Whenever I see a new study that’s relevant I write it down so I could theoretically update.
Alice: Do you have another favorite psychology book, something accessible to non –psychology PhDs.
Sonja: There are lots.
1. Dan Gilbert – Stumbling on Happiness. He’s a brilliant writer. His book is more philosophical. Stumbling on Happiness. (I also very much love and adore this book!).
3. In terms of lay books, not written by scientists, my favorite is probably the Art of Happiness which is interviews with the Dalai Lama. Even though it’s not a scientific book he really gets a lot of things right. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living.
Dr Alice Boyes is a former clinical psychologist turned writer. She is author of The Anxiety Toolkit (2015), published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of PenguinRandomHouse. She blogs for PsychologyToday.com and Business Insider, and contributes to various magazines.