The How of Happiness: Chapter by Chapter

I’ve been reading a lot about positive psychology and other books related to the science and economics of happiness and the one I’ve just finished is Sonja Lyubomirsky‘s The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

As I mentioned yesterday, this book is the most comprehensive guide to happiness and guide to applying the principles of positive psychology to your own life. Additionally, the book is easy to read and understand, well organized (something I very much appreciate as someone who loves to be organized), and full of facts and science!

Here are some of the things that I learned from each chapter of The How of Happiness:

Chapter One: Is It Possible to Become Happier?

  1. 54% of adults in the United States are “moderately mentally healthly” but not flourishing
  2. A study of severely depressed people that required them to write down three good things that happened each day every day, found that within fifteen days their depression became “mildly to moderately depressed” and 94% of them experienced relief.
  3. Lyubomirsky’s research shows that 40% of happiness is within our control. Of the remaining 60%, 50% is determined by “set points” (genetics) and 10% by circumstances.
  4. One study showed that those who were happy as college freshmen had higher salaries sixteen years later without an initial wealth advantage.
  5. Another study showed that women who expressed sincere joy in their college yearbook photos were relatively more likely to be married by age twenty-seven and more likely to have satisfying marriages at age fifty-two.

Chapter Two: How Happy Are You and Why?

  1. On Lyubomirsky‘s Subjective Happiness Scale (1 to 7), college students tend to score lower (below 5) than working adults and retired people (about 5.6).
  2. Studies show that 15% of people in the United States (and 21% of women) will become clinically depressed at some point.
  3. The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2020, depression will be the second-leading cause of mortality in the world, affecting 30% of adults.
  4. In the 1940s “one-third of all homes did not have running water, indoor toilets, or bathtub/showers, and more than half had no central heating” and the average score for American’s happiness then was 7.5 out of 10. Today, “the typical house not only has running water, two or more baths, and central heating but it twice the size, with an average of two rooms per person, not to mention being equipped with microwave ovens, dishwashers, color TVs, DVD players, iPods, and personal computers. And real monthly personal income has more than doubled.” Today the average score for American’s happiness is now 7.2.
  5. In 1976, researchers who studied the attitudes of 12,000 college freshmen at elite colleges/universities (age eighteen on average) and then measured their life satisfaction at age thirty-seven found that those whose primary goal as freshman was to make money were less satisfied with their lives at age thirty seven.
  6. Both Californians and midwesterners believe that people in California are happier. But studies have shown that the overall satisfaction of both groups is the same!
  7. Married couples get a boost in happiness for about two years (“marriage boost”), and then return to their happiness “set point.”
  8. It is believe that your “set point” cannot be changed; but we can still change our happiness levels!
  9. Depression is associated with the short allele (as opposed to the long allele) of the 5-HTTLPR gene.
  10. Happy people tend to have more activity in their left prefrontal cortex than in the right.

Chapter Three: How to Find Happiness Activities That Fit Your Interests, Your Values, and Your Needs

This chapter is just eleven pages long (three of which are taken up by a questionnaire). The twelve ways to increase happiness, as determined by Lyubomirsky are:

  1. Expressing gratitude
  2. Cultivating optimism
  3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
  4. Practicing acts of kindness
  5. Nurturing relationships
  6. Developing strategies for coping
  7. Learning to forgive
  8. Doing more activities that truly engage you
  9. Savoring life’s joys
  10. Committing to your goals
  11. Practicing religion and spirituality
  12. Taking care of your body

Chapter Four: Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking

  1. People who are consistently grateful have been found to be happier, more energetic, and more hopeful. “They also tend to be more helpful and empathetic, more spiritual and religious, more forgiving, and less materialistic…[and] less likely to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.”
  2. Gratitude is thought to boost happiness for eight reasons: (1) promotes the savoring of positive life experiences; (2) bolsters self-worth and self-esteem; (3) helps people cope with stress and trauma; (4) encourages moral behavior; (5) can help build social bonds, strengthen existing relationships and nurture new ones; (6) tends to inhibit comparisons with others; (7) incompatible with negative emotions and may diminish or deter feeling such as anger, bitterness or greed; and (8) helps prevent hedonistic adaptation.
  3. Some people make a distinction between “big optimism” (“produces an overall feeling of vigor”) and “little optimism” (“predisposes people to behave in constructive, healthy ways in specific situations”).
  4. Participants in the “Best Possible Selves” experiment (each participant spent twenty minutes each day for four days writing a narrative description of their “best possible future selves”) were “more likely to show immediate increases in positive moods, to be happier several weeks later, and even to report fewer physical ailments several months thence.” — I find this particularly interesting as this sounds, to me, a lot like The Secret, or the power of positive thinking.
  5. Optimism is thought to boost happiness because: (1) it motivates us and makes us more likely to invest effort in reaching our goals; (2) prompts us to engage in active and effective coping; (3) promotes positive moods, vitality, and high morale.
  6. Self-focused rumination is a technical term for overthinking.
  7. Overthinking while sad may make you more likely to feel “besieged, powerless, self-critical, pessimistic, and generally negatively biased.”

Chapter Five: Investing in Social Connection

  1. Happier people are more likely to describe themselves as performing “random acts of kindness” such as “doing frequent altruistic acts…, spend[ing] a greater percentage of their time helping others…, and perform[ing] behaviors at hte office that go beyond the call of duty.”
  2. Doing varied acts of kindness on a regular basis makes people happy for an extended period of time. Practicing acts of kindness works because: (1) it helps you to perceive others more positively; (2) fosters a sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community; (3) encourages a sense of awareness and appreciation for your own good fortune; (4) helps you to think of yourself as altruistic and compassionate which then promotes self-confidence; (5) can highlight your abilities and resources and make you feel in control of your life; and (6) leads other people to like you and appreciate you and to reciprocate in your times of need.
  3. Caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease show depression levels three times greater than the average person.
  4. The happier a person is, the more likely he or she is to have a large circle of friends or companions, to have a romantic partner and to consider that partner her “great love,” to have ample social support, to be married and to have a fulfilling and long lasting marriage, to be satisfied with her family life and social activities, and to receive emotional and tangible support from friends, supervisors, and coworkers.
  5. An analysis of three communities of long-lived communities – Sardinians in Italy, Okinawans in Japan, and Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda CA — found that of the five things they had in common, “Put family first” and “Keep socially engaged” were the most common.
  6. A study found that people who tried to respond “actively and constructively” to good news of loved ones or friends at least three times per day over a week became happier and less depressed.
  7. Studies have shown that relative to married people, singles are closer to their friends and have more frequent contact with them and that lifelong single older women tend to have close to a dozen devoted decades-long friends!
  8. Hugging is a terrific intimacy and friendship booster and may relieve stress, make you feel closer to someone, and even diminish pain.

Chapter Six: Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma

  1. Close to half of United States adults will experience one severe traumatic event during their lifetimes. I’m not exactly sure what events constitute severe traumatic events.
  2. A groundbreaking (and now classic) study found that two-thirds of female breast cancer survivors reported that their lives had been altered for the better after developing the disease.
  3. Bereavement has been found to be associated with an elevation in stress hormones called glutocorticoids, and friendly social contact can lower these hormones.
  4. Women cancer patients who attend weekly support groups have been found to live an average of eighteen months longer.
  5. Forgiving people are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable and more serene and are better able to empathize with others and to be spiritual/religious and less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry and neurotic.
  6. Men tend to hold onto hurts and grudges longer than women.

Chapter Seven: Living in the Present

  1. Those who can capture the joy of the present moment (by hanging on to good feelings or appreciating good things for example) are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame.
  2. People who obtain pleasure from looking forward (by imagining future happy events for example) are likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions.
  3. People who reminisce about the past (by looking back on happy days or rekindling joy form for example) are best able to buffer stress.
  4. Mutual reminiscence (the technical term for sharing memories with other people) comes with lots of happy thoughts like joy, accomplishment, amusement, contentment, and pride.
  5. The more time older adults spend reminiscing, the more they have positive affect and higher morale.
  6. Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being.
  7. Mindful people are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident, and satisfied with their lives, to experience frequent and intense positive emotions, to have positive social relationships and less likely to be depressed, angry, anxious, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive, or neurotic.
  8. Nostalgic experiences create positive feelings, reinforce our sense of being loved and protected, and bolsters self-esteem.

Chapter Eight: Happiness Activity No.10: Committing to Your Goals

  1. Committed goal pursuit is thought to boost happiness for six reasons: (1) provides a sense of purpose and a feeling of control over our lives; (2) boosts self-esteem and stimulates us to feel confident and efficacious; (3) adds structure and meaning to daily life; (4) helps us learn to master our use of time; (5) help us cope with problems; and (6) often involves other people and social connections can boost happiness in and of themselves.
  2. “The pursuit of goals that are intrinsic, authentic, approach-oriented, harmonious, activity-based, and flexible will deliver more happiness than the pursuit of goals that are extrinsic, inauthentic, avoidance-oriented, conflicting, circumstance-based, or rigid.”

Chapter Nine: Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul

  1. Religious people are happier, healthier, and recover better from trauma.
  2. Those active in their religions live longer with a variety of disease and are healthier in general.
  3. Spiritual people are happier, physically and mentally healthier, cope better, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs/alcohol less often, and live longer lives.
  4. Almost seven out of ten Americans report praying every single day and only 6% report never praying!
  5. Meditation has been shown to be effective in patients with heart disease, chronic pain, skin disorders, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
  6. Meditating reduces stress, boosts positive mood, self-esteem, and feelings of control.
  7. Aerobic exercise has been shown to be just as effective as SSRIs (like Zoloft) in treating depression.
  8. Physical activity is thought to boost happiness for several reasons: (1) makes you feel in control of your body and health; (2) offers potential for flow and can distract you from worries and ruminations; and (3) can provide opportunities for social contact and thus reinforce social support and friendships.
  9. Pretending to be happy can actually make you happier!

Chapter Ten: The Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness

  1. Patients with hypertension — who must take meditation each day and eat low-sodium diets — are much more likely to adhere to their strict regimens if they have family support, especially from spouses.
  2. Research proves that a continual and perfect state of bliss is not only impossible but also maladaptive.

To summarize, the main things I’ve learned from this book are:

  1. Journal writing is remarkable! It can help increase happiness through a variety of methods (writing about gratitude, reflecting on acts of kindness, analyzing traumas, imagining your best possible future self, goal-setting, etc.).
  2. Variety is the spice of life! Whether we’re talking about being charitable, expressing gratitude, setting and striving for goals, make sure to vary your activities to get the most benefit.

If you have any interest in positive psychology or are interested in learning concrete scientifically proven methods to become happier and have a better life, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The How of Happiness.

4 responses to “The How of Happiness: Chapter by Chapter

  1. Pingback: U P B E - Where the science of happiness meets ancient wisdom - » Practicing gratitude everyday

  2. Pingback: Excerpt from The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky (1) « Reflections

  3. Pingback: Anxiety, Panic & Health | Living with Health, Wellness and Wholeness » Blog Archive » Saturday Summary: The How of Happiness, Website Changes, and Upcoming Articles

  4. Pingback: Book Review: “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky

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