Lyubomirsky began studying happiness as a graduate student in 1989 after an intriguing conversation with her adviser, Stanford University psychologist Lee D. Ross, who told her about a remarkably happy friend who had lost both parents to the Holocaust. Ross explains it this way: "For this person, the meaning of the Holocaust was that it was indecent or inappropriate to be unhappy about trivial things--and that one should strive to find joy in life and human relationships." Psychologists have long known that different people can see and think about the same events in different ways, but they had done little research on how these interpretations affect well-being.
Count your blessings every day? Not if you want to be really happy.
So Lyubomirsky had to lay some groundwork before she could go into the lab. Back then, happiness was "a fuzzy, unscientific topic," she says, and although no instrument yet exists for giving perfectly valid, reliable and precise readings of someone's happiness from session to session, Lyubomirsky has brought scientific rigor to the emerging field. From her firm belief that it is each person's self-reported happiness that matters, she developed a four-question Subjective Happiness Scale. Lyubomirsky's working definition of happiness--"a joyful, contented life"--gets at both the feelings and judgments necessary for overall happiness. (If a sleep-deprived new mom feels fulfilled but frazzled, and an aimless party girl feels empty despite loads of fun, neither would consider herself truly happy.) To this day, she rarely sees her studies' participants; they do most exercises out in the real world and answer detailed questionnaires on the computer, often from home. To assess subjects' efforts and honesty, she uses several cross-checks, such as timing them as they complete the questionnaires.
The research needed to answer questions about lasting happiness is costly, because studies need to follow a sizable group of people over a long time. Two and a half years ago Lyubomirsky and Sheldon received a five-year, $1-million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to do just that. Investigators have no shortage of possible strategies to test, with happiness advice coming "from the Buddha to Tony Robbins," as Seligman puts it. So Lyubomirsky started with three promising strategies: kindness, gratitude and optimism--all of which past research had linked with happiness.
Her aim is not merely to confirm the strategies' effectiveness but to gain insights into how happiness works. For example, conventional wisdom suggests keeping a daily gratitude journal. But one study revealed that those who had been assigned to do that ended up less happy than those who had to count their blessings only once a week. Lyubomirsky therefore confirmed her hunch that timing is important. So is variety, it turned out: a kindness intervention found that participants told to vary their good deeds ended up happier than those forced into a kindness rut. Lyubomirsky is also asking about mediators: Why, for example, does acting kind make you happier? "I'm a basic researcher, not an applied researcher, so I'm interested not so much in the strategies but in how they work and what goes on behind the scenes," she explains.
Initial results with the interventions have been promising, but sustaining them is tough. Months after a study is over, the people who have stopped the exercises show a drop in happiness. Like a drug or a diet, the exercises work only if you stick with them. Instilling habits is crucial. Another key: "fit," or how well the exercise matches the person. If sitting down to imagine your best possible self (an optimism exercise) feels contrived, you will be less likely to do it.
The biggest factor may be getting over the idea that happiness is fixed--and realizing that sustained effort can boost it. "A lot of people don't apply the notion of effort to their emotional lives," Lyubomirsky declares, "but the effort it takes is enormous."
This article was originally published with the title The Science of Lasting Happiness.