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Almost Any Types of Acts of Kindness Boost Happiness

Happiness interview: Sonja Lyubomirsky.

Happiness interview: Sonja Lyubomirsky.

I got to know Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky through her work, which includes the fascinating book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (just the kind of book I love), and then I met her in person when we appeared together in this episode of the Katie Couric show.

Now she has a new book, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does.

She’s one of the leading writers and thinkers on the subject of happiness, so I was very eager to get the chance to pose some questions.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Sonja: Research shows that there are many simple activities that reliably make people happier. My favorite is doing acts of kindness. The generous acts don’t have to be random and they don’t have to be a certain kind (e.g, anonymous or social or big, etc.). We have found that almost any types of acts of kindness boost happiness. And two hot-off-the-presses studies reveal even bigger benefits. An experiment we just published in PLOS ONE showed that when 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers. And another big intervention we just finished at a company in Spain showed that asking some employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues (we called this our “Secret Santa” manipulation) produced huge benefits (for increasing happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreasing depression) not just for the givers, but for the receivers and even for observers. The recipients of kindness “paid the kind acts forward” and even acquaintances of the givers became happier and were inspired to act more generously themselves.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

It sounds like a cliché but I know now that happiness “resides within” and that often our “problems” can be solved by simply changing how we think about them. A great deal of research bears this out. As William James, the philosopher, observed, where we direct attention determines our experience; it determines our life. So we can choose to spend most of our days ruminating about negatives or we can choose to be grateful. This doesn’t mean that we have to be in denial – it simply suggests that at least part of our time we decide to direct our attention to the positives in our life and the world at large and on the things that really matter.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

An avalanche of studies (including those done by myself and my cherished mentor, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale professor who suddenly and tragically passed away last week) show that circular, obsessive dwelling or overthinking (what researchers call “rumination”) is a huge obstacle to happiness. Ruminating about our problems or our feelings makes us feel even more depressed, even more pessimistic, and more out of control.

Also, as my new book, The Myths of Happiness, describes in detail, one of the biggest obstacles to staying happy is hedonic adaptation – the phenomenon that human beings are remarkably good at getting used to positive changes in their lives. After we get married, buy a new house, obtain a promotion, or get rich, those life changes thrill us for a while, but the thrill wears off rather quickly. We either revert back to our previous level of happiness or, worse, we feel emptiness or even letdown. Understanding that this is an ordinary human process will help us get through those turning points and also find ways to slow down adaptation — for example, by putting effort into appreciating the positive life change and/or introducing novelty, variety, and surprise into our daily lives.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

I frequently witness people reiterating one of the primary happiness “myths” – namely, that they’re not happy now, but they’ll be happy when the right partner or job comes along, when they have a baby, when they make more money, or move to that city they’ve always wanted to live in. This type of thinking detracts from our happiness because it leads to outsized — and frankly false — expectations about the extent to which positive life events can impact our happiness for the longterm. Research shows that these events almost never make us as happy (or for as long) as we believe they will. And when that happens, we might conclude that there’s something wrong with us and we may end up making poor decisions, like jettisoning perfectly good jobs or partners.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

The view. We bought a new house (which is literally twice as big and much nicer than our old condo) just two months ago and even though I have almost completely adapted to everything about the house (the beautiful kitchen, bathrooms, extra bedrooms, etc.), but not the view. This experience is fully supported by research. We adapt very quickly to our possessions but not to our experiences, especially changeable ones. The view changes all the time, and on clear beautiful days (of which there are many where I live) we see ships in the ocean.

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