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7 Proven Steps to Happiness

Best hits from a guru of positive psychology.

Key points

  • Sonja Lyubomirsky has done rigorous research on the seemingly soft question of "how to be happy."
  • Her book "The How of Happiness" is rich in great advice.
  • Happiness activities include doing something nice for someone else, expressing gratitude, and nurturing relationships.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. A book called “The How of Happiness” might sound a little soft and pop-psychy, but if you read it, you’ll find that it actually delivers on the “scientific” part. Indeed, Lyubomirsky is a highly regarded research scientist, whose work has been cited 56,537 times, according to Google Scholar (a number that puts her in the Highly Respected category).

Originally writing her name as Соня Любомирскаяa, she was born in Russia, but emigrated to the U.S. as a child, at a time before Glasnost, when there was a still an “Iron Curtain.” Her mother was well-educated but forced to work as a cleaning lady. As she tells the story, one of her mom's wealthy clients "had a daughter who was applying to this fancy school (Maret) and so my mom (knowing nothing about private schools or even what it means to apply or that they cost money) heard this and decided that I should apply too. (The woman scoffed.) And so my parents, not knowing anything, just drove me to the school and asked if I could go there. The assistant headmistress was kind of dumbfounded about what to do with this clueless and non-English-speaking family (in 1977 there were no Russians in the U.S. and all the synagogues had signs that said 'Save Soviet Jewry' on them) but decided to give me a test right then and there. The short story is that I got in but the wealthy woman’s daughter didn’t."

This happy turn of events was followed by her getting an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Stanford. Perhaps that life trajectory made Lyubomirsky happier than most people, but for whatever reason, she is someone who radiates positive affect, if you ever had the good fortune to meet her at a conference.

 Sonja Lyubomirsky, used with permission
Lyubomirsky and her book, "The How of Happiness."
Source: Sonja Lyubomirsky, used with permission

I had read The How of Happiness a few years back, but recently listened to the audio version because I was looking for some references for a book I just completed on evolutionary positive psychology (Kenrick & Lundberg-Kenrick, 2021). I was delighted to learn that she read her own book for the audio version, given that I associate her voice with all that radiated positive affect (plus I always prefer an author-read book, if only because it avoids mispronounced technical terms and names).

Lyubomirsky has done some research comparing happy and unhappy people, and in the book, she details the differences. Based on her research and that of others, she offers a number of concrete suggestions to make yourself happier. The book is organized around 12 “happiness activities,” but some of those are actually broken into sub-categories, so the real number of advice bits is probably closer to 30 or 40. I am going to list below the seven that I found most helpful.

1. Do something nice for someone else.

When I asked Lyubomirsky to nominate her own favorite positive psychology findings with practical implications for people’s lives, she responded “Do acts of kindness for others (e.g., make someone else happier).” She notes there is plenty of research evidence that doing things for others makes you happier, and I have reviewed some of it here and here.

2. Express gratitude on a regular basis.

This was the other bit of well-supported advice Lyubomirsky gave me in response to my query (and of course, I am grateful for that advice, Sonja!). After the first time I read her book, my wife suggested that we institute a nightly ritual of a “thankful list.” We have been doing that for over a decade now, before our son’s bedtime reading, and it’s one of the highlights of my day. In the book, Lyubomirsky lists several ways that gratitude boosts happiness, by helping you savor positive experiences, for example, as well as boosting your self-esteem, building social bonds, and disrupting your negative emotions.

3. Cultivate an optimistic outlook on life.

Lyubomirsky has done research with Laura King, who herself conducted interesting research in which people imagine their “best possible future selves.” What would you be doing in 10 years if everything went perfectly in your life? It’s worth trying yourself right now, because it’s fun, and King’s (2001) research suggests that imagining an ideal future self actually increases people’s inclination to persist toward their goals and to cope with setbacks.

4. Avoid invidious social comparisons.

Lyubomirsky’s own research suggests that happy people are pretty oblivious to other people who seem to be doing better than them. On the other side of the coin, materialistic attempts to keep up with the Joneses (or the Gateses) are actually a great way to make yourself more depressed (see Dittmar, Bond, Hurst, & Kasser, 2014).

5. Nurture your relationships.

Make time to be with friends and family members (without your electronic devices), pay attention to them, let them know what you like about them, and when something good happens to them, be sure to share in their positive outcomes. Practice saying: “I see your point” if you have minor disagreements (about the news or who should wash the dishes for example).

A classic study of long-lived Sardinians, Okinawans, and Seventh-Day Adventists found those diverse groups had several things in common, with “putting family first” and “keeping socially engaged” at the top of the list (Buettner, 2005). Another study by Wing and Jeffery (1999) found that people who started a weight loss program who paired up with a friend lost substantially more weight, and kept it off, as compared to those who went it alone. Lyubomrisky had “learn to forgive” as a separate point, but it is certainly a powerful tool for maintaining relationships (because unlike you and me, our friends and relatives all occasionally screw up).

6. Enjoy your work.

This actually collapses two of Lyubomirsky’s happiness activities: Doing more activities that truly engage you (that put you in flow), and committing to your goals. As I’ve noted in more detail in an earlier post, people who work hard actually enjoy their jobs more, and experience their work more like play; trying to get by with the least effort is a formula to make work more like work than play.

7. Take care of your body.

Here, Lyubomirsky has a few sub-categories, including getting regular exercise, learning to meditate, and simply acting like a happy person (going out of your way to smile and laugh, for example). So, go ahead, try it, run around your house for 10 minutes, then sit in a lotus position for 10 minutes and hold your face in a smile while you do it.

I’ll list a couple of the references for research I mentioned in the list above, but Lyubomirsky’s book is well-documented and worth checking out for all the other bits of helpful advice I did not mention here.

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Brown, S. P., & Peterson, R. A. (1993). Antecedents and consequences of salesperson job satisfaction: Meta-analysis and assessment of causal effects. Journal of Marketing Research, 30(1), 63–77.

Buettner, D. (2005). New Wrinkles on Aging: Residents of Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda, California, live longer, healthier lives than just about anyone else on Earth. What do they know that the rest of us don't? National Geographic, 208(5), 2-27.

Dittmar, H., Bond, R., Hurst, M., & Kasser, T. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), 879–924.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Kenrick, D.T., & Lundberg-Kenrick, D.E. (2021). Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human evolution and the 7 Fundamental Motives. Washington: APA Books. In press.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.

Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67(1), 132–138.