Questionnaire

Forty percent of our happiness may be within our power to control--and making ourselves happier could take less than 10 minutes a day, according to University of California, Riverside, psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD.

Winner of the 2002 Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, Lyubomirsky has been researching happiness for nearly two decades and is leading the way in the scientific study of interventions that lastingly increase human happiness, says former APA President and fellow positive psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD.

Backed by a five-year $1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lyubomirsky--along with colleague Ken Sheldon, PhD--is exploring the potential of happiness-sustaining strategies, such as expressing gratitude and reflecting on happy moments, to permanently bolster one's happiness level.

Some of her key research includes a 2006 study--published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 4)--in which Lyubomirsky and her graduate students found that people who thought about happy life events for eight minutes every day for three days felt increased life satisfaction four weeks later than they had prior to the study.

Lyubomirsky describes the theory behind this "40 Percent Solution" and introduces a dozen of these research-based "happiness activities" in her book, "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want" (Penguin Press, 2008). The Monitor spoke with Lyubomirsky about her book and how psychologists--and their clients--can use this research to achieve lifelong happiness.

Why research happiness?

Happiness is the Holy Grail of science. Most people in the world say that they want to be happy. I study not only how happy people are different from less happy people, but also how we can make people happier.

How does your book stand out from others on the subject?

I think that I'm the first author of a "how to be happy book" who actually does scientific research to determine whether people can become sustainably happier. Most books on happiness are not based on empirical research, but rather on people's opinions, anecdotes, clinical evidence and intuition. All of those things are valuable, but we need to validate that the folk wisdom holds merit. My book serves two goals: It presents the scientific literature, but also has a self-help component where I give people advice and recommendations on what to do--based on actual research results. And in areas where there is very little research, or where I only have correlational research results--for example, in the area of spirituality's effects on happiness--I make that very clear to readers. I don't think the majority of other happiness books do that.

How can people become sustainably happy?

That is the million-dollar question. It takes a great deal of effort and commitment. I often use the analogy of weight loss. Some researchers argue that there's a set point for weight, just like there is a set point for happiness. There are strategies that can help you lose weight, and everyone knows what they are: eat less and exercise more. But to sustain that weight you need to put a lot of effort and commitment into it. You don't just go on a diet for two weeks--you have to do it basically every day for the rest of your life. It's the same with happiness. If your set point for happiness is lower than you'd like, and you want to be happier, you really have to put effort into it.

How can psychologists help people boost their happiness?

A lot of people--life and happiness coaches, in particular--are already using some of the techniques I write about in the book to help their clients become happier, but most of their recommendations have not been based on solid empirical evidence. What I hope to do is to give clinical psychologists a jumping-off point to develop their own treatment plans. I'm not a clinical psychologist, and I'm not in the business of developing formal client treatment modules, but I think the book offers guidelines that psychologists can expand on and make even more specific to their clients.

Does climate affect happiness? Or is it true that people living in sunny California aren't any happier than Midwesterners?

When we measure their life satisfaction, Californians and Midwesterners fare about the same, and that shows the power of adaptation--the phenomenon that we tend to become accustomed to our life circumstances over time. For example, you move to a sunnier climate and at first you get this boost of happiness, but over time you adjust to it. Adaptation to positive events is one of the biggest obstacles to happiness. If people adapt to anything positive that they do and everything positive that happens to them, how can they ever become happier?

Are there strategies to overcome or forestall that adaptation?

To test this, Ken Sheldon and I have applied for a National Science Foundation grant to study groups of people who are starting a new hobby, like scrapbooking or photography. It seems that even with these kinds of hobbies, at first you're really excited to be doing something new, but over time you adapt to it. We're going to follow people as they take an arts-and-crafts class for the first time. In another study, we're going to give people a massage chair cushion to track their happiness level after receiving a new gadget. In the first set of studies we're going to look at the normal, natural course of adaptation to these things, and in the second series we're going to ask people to actively try to forestall adaptation through various strategies, such as trying to increase the variety of how they use the device, or, with the hobby, have them truly savor it.

What are the big questions that remain about human happiness?

We need more long-term longitudinal studies to determine whether people who continue to use happiness strategies in their lives truly stay happier. I also would be interested to see how those happiness practices affect other domains of people's lives. My prediction is that if people are trying to be happier, over time, not only are they going to feel happier but they will receive all of the other benefits that come with happiness: Their relationships will improve, their creativity might improve, they might become more pro-social. Maybe they'll even become better leaders and negotiators.