Sign In

Login to our social questions & Answers Engine to ask questions answer people’s questions & connect with other people.

Forgot Password

Lost your password? Please enter your email address. You will receive a link and will create a new password via email.

You must login to ask question.

Please briefly explain why you feel this question should be reported.

Please briefly explain why you feel this answer should be reported.

Please briefly explain why you feel this user should be reported.

PSYC 4541 UC Boulder Pains and Pleasures of Social Life Reading Response

The special nature of the single-electron
wave functions required for topological insulators arises naturally in insulators that have
small band gaps and strong spin-orbit coupling because they contain heavy atoms.
Experimental evidence for the strange surface
states was found shortly after their prediction
(8) in transport measurements in a device containing a thin layer of HgTe forming a “quantum spin Hall insulator,” the two-dimensional
version of the topological insulator (9).
Shortly thereafter, it was realized that topological insulators could form in three dimensions
(6), and the heavy semimetal bismuth, alloyed
with antimony to turn it into a small-gap insulator, was identified as a candidate (5).
Transport measurements on the surface of a
crystal are very difficult, but angle-resolved
photoemission can image the surface electron
bands directly. Last year, Hsieh et al. (10)
showed that there are an uneven number of
surface bands crossing the Fermi energy.
Spin-orbit coupling lies at the heart of the
topological insulator, but how does this relate
to the effects of relativity discussed in the context of a MnSi skyrmion lattice? Electrical
fields are present at the Bi1–xSbx crystal surface, but these will not give rise to magnetism.
However, under the influence of the topological bulk, the surface spins do not order in
physical position space, but rather in the space
formed by the wave vectors of the quantum
waves describing the electrons moving on the
surface. This two-dimensional wave vector
space repeats periodically, and because the
surface is metallic, it contains a periodic array
of Fermi “surfaces” enclosing the regions
with occupied states.
When the bulk is a topological insulator, the
remarkable coincidence is that the skyrmion
lattice described by Mühlbauer et al. forms an
acceptable cartoon of what this “magnetism in
wave vector space” looks like. The skyrmions
are now regions of occupied states, and their
rims are the Fermi surfaces. The spins at the
Fermi energy are precisely oriented as the
whirls formed by the “golden” spins.
However, the cartoon is not a literal
description as electron energies move away
from the Fermi energy. The whirl-like arrangement of the Fermi surface spins should
actually persist both for the occupied and
unoccupied states, with the spins slowly vanishing upon moving away from the Fermi surface. Using spin-resolved photoemission,
Hsieh et al. observe precisely this “wave vector space magnetism,” which is direct evidence that Bi1–xSbx is a topological insulator.
The discovery by Mühlbauer et al. that
spins can order in the form of a lattice of topological particles confirms that skyrmions
indeed can behave like atoms and opens up
new avenues of research related to electrical
transport, especially in relation to the very
strange metallic states found in MnSi when it
is put under pressure. Hsieh et al. show that a
simple alloy of bismuth and antimony allows
us to hold something very nonintuitive—a
macroscopic quantum entangled state—in the
palms of our hands, and the theorists continue
to suggest new ideas for experimental study.
The electrodynamics of topological insulators
is also quite strange: When an electrical
charge is brought to the surface, it will bind
automatically to a magnetic monopole formed
in the bulk, and this “dyon” should behave like
a particle with fractional quantum statistics
(11). Alternatively, when a superconductor is
brought into contact with a topological insulator, its magnetic vortices are predicted to turn
into particles that can be used for topological
quantum computing (12).
1. S. Mühlbauer et al., Science 323, 915 (2009).
2. D. Hsieh et al., Science 323, 919 (2009).
3. Y. Ishikawa, M. Arai, J. Phys. Soc. Jpn. 53, 2726 (1984).
4. T. H. R. Skyrme, Nucl. Phys. 31, 556 (1962).
5. L. Fu, C. L. Kane, E. J. Mele, Phys. Rev. Lett. 98, 106803
6. J. E. Moore, L. Balents, Phys. Rev. B 75, 121306 (2007).
7. J. E. Moore, Y. Ran, X. G. Wen, Phys. Rev. Lett. 101,
186805 (2008).
8. B. A. Bernevig, T. L. Hughes, S.-C. Zhang, Science 314,
1757 (2006).
9. M. König et al., Science 318, 766 (2007); published
online 19 September 2007 (10.1126/science.1148047).
10. D. Hsieh et al., Nature 452, 970 (2008).
11. X.-L. Qi, R. Li, J. Zang, S.-C. Zhang, Science, in press;
published online 29 January 2009 (10.1126/science.
12. L. Fu, C. L. Kane, Phys. Rev. Lett. 100, 096407 (2008).
Pains and Pleasures of Social Life
Analyses of brain activity reveal a link between
social and physical pains and pleasures.
Matthew D. Lieberman and Naomi I. Eisenberger
ife is full of complex social events such
as being accepted or rejected, treated
fairly or unfairly, and esteemed or
devalued by others. Our responses to these
events depend primarily on our psychological
interpretation of them, in contrast to events
like spraining an ankle or eating chocolate, for
which our responses seem more dependent on
the physical acts themselves. Nevertheless,
our emotional responses to these psychological events rely on much of the same neural circuitry that underlies the simplest physical
pains and pleasures. On page 937 of this issue,
Takahasi et al. (1) show that experiencing
envy at another person’s success activates
Department of Psychology, 1285 Franz Hall, University of
California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095–1563,
USA. E-mail:
pain-related neural circuitry, whereas experiencing schadenfreude—delight at someone
else’s misfortune—activates reward-related
neural circuitry.
Neuroscientists have identified neural systems responsible for experiences of pain and
pleasure. The cortical pain network consists
primarily of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), insula, and somatosensory cortex, with subcortical contributions from the
periaqueductal gray and thalamus (2) (see the
figure). Whereas the somatosensory cortex is
associated with sensory aspects of cutaneous
physical pain (e.g., its location on the body),
the dACC is associated with the distressing
aspect of pain.
The brain’s reward circuitry (see the figure) consists of neural structures receiving the
neurotransmitter dopamine from the ventral
13 FEBRUARY 2009
VOL 323
Published by AAAS
tegmental area, and responds to physically
rewarding stimuli such as food, drugs, and
sexual activity. The nucleus accumbens in
ventral striatum plays a critical role in reward
learning and pleasurable states, while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala are
also major dopaminergic targets that have
been implicated in reward processes (3).
Although it is expected that these networks
produce robust responses to physical pains
and pleasures, it is surprising that social pains
and pleasures activate these same networks.
For example, being socially excluded activates the dACC and insula, with the dACC
showing greater activity to the extent that an
individual feels greater social pain (4).
Grieving over the death of a loved one and
being treated unfairly also activate these
regions (5, 6). Alternatively, social rewards
activate the same reward network as desirable
foods and drinks. Having a good reputation,
being treated fairly, and being cooperative all
activate the ventral striatum (7–9). Strikingly,
making charitable donations activates the
reward network more than receiving the same
sum of money for oneself (10).
Although most would describe being
excluded as painful and giving to charity
as pleasurable, the connotations of these
descriptions change as we learn that these
experiences activate the same brain regions
that respond to physical pains and pleasures.
Such findings suggest that the brain may treat
abstract social experiences and concrete
physical experiences as more similar than is
generally assumed.
These overlaps suggest that certain social
psychological concerns may have the same
motivational importance as other physical survival needs. For every state of deprivation associated with a particular need, there is a pain.
Lack of food begets hunger, lack of water
begets thirst, and lack of shelter begets thermal
discomfort. Each of these pains motivates us to
seek out the salve that will take the pain away
and satisfy the underlying need. The process of
satisfying such needs is pleasurable and
rewarding. All basic survival needs share these
dynamics between need deprivation and pain
and between need satiation and pleasure.
Moreover, for physical survival needs, the
greater the deprivation and attendant pain, the
more pleasurable it is to satisfy the need (e.g.,
food tastes better on an empty stomach).
Takahashi et al. demonstrate, for the first
time, this dynamic interplay between social
pains and pleasures. If maintaining one’s
social value is a need like other physical
needs, then the greater the pain caused by negative social comparisons, the greater the
pleasure in response to seeing the comparison
target socially devalued (schadenfreude). The
authors found that greater envy and dACC
activity in response to a negative social comparison was associated with greater schadenfreude and ventral striatum activity when
learning of that comparison target’s subsequent downfall.
Given that physical needs intuitively seem
more critical to survival than social needs,
why would the brain have evolved to treat
them as motivationally similar? It is clear why
food and water are needed and why their deprivation causes pain. But why use the neural
system for physical pain to deal with social
pains? One critical determinant may be the
dependence of mammalian newborns on others for survival. Because newborn mammals
are relatively immature—incapable of securing food, water, and shelter for themselves—
Pain network
Reward network
Physical pleasures
Having a good reputation
Being treating fairly
Giving to charity
Physical pains
Social exclusion
Being treated unfairly
Negative social comparison
The pain and pleasure systems. The pain network consists of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC),
insula (Ins), somatosensory cortex (SSC), thalamus (Thal), and periaqueductal gray (PAG). This network is
implicated in physical and social pain processes. The reward or pleasure network consists of the ventral
tegmental area (VTA), ventral striatum (VS), ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), and the amygdala
(Amyg). This network is implicated in physical and social rewards.
they and the survival of their species depend
on an ongoing bond between caregiver and
infant (11). For both caregiver and infant to
feel pain upon separation ensures social connection and thus offspring survival. In a sense,
for mammalian infants, social needs take
precedence over physical needs because meeting the social needs is what allows the physical needs to be met as well.
In addition to the caregiver-infant bond,
connections to a social group also promote
survival. When responsibility for food acquisition, protection from predators, and care for
offspring are distributed among group members (rather than being the sole responsibility
of a single individual), individual group
members are more likely to survive (12).
Being fair, cooperative, or charitable may
increase the survival of the group and thus
one’s own offspring. Moreover, group members who are not cooperative are more likely
to be ostracized, which greatly lowers
chances of survival (13). Thus, evolutionary
pressures may have created internal mechanisms that register being socially cooperative
as pleasurable and being ostracized as painful
in order to promote the maintenance of group
bonds and ensure survival.
The link between social and physical pains
and pleasures adds to the growing chorus of
neurocognitive findings that point to the critical importance of the social world for the surviving and thriving of humans. It seems non-
VOL 323
Published by AAAS
coincidental that the size of the prefrontal cortex correlates with the size of social groups
across primate species (14), that there is a dedicated neurocognitive network for social cognition that is preferentially activated when the
mind is at rest (15), and that social and physical needs rely on shared neural substrates. Our
attentiveness to the social world may sometimes seem like a diversion from more concrete concerns, but increasingly, neuroscience
is revealing ways in which such attention is
actually an adaptive response to some of our
most vital concerns.
1. H. Takahashi et al., Science 323, 937 (2009).
2. D. D. Price, Science 288, 1769 (2000).
3. K. C. Berridge, M. L. Kringelbach, Psychopharmacology
199, 457 (2008).
4. N. I. Eisenberger, M. D. Lieberman, K. D. Williams,
Science 302, 290 (2003).
5. M. F. O’Connor et al., Neuroimage 42, 969 (2008).
6. A. G. Sanfey, J. K. Rilling, J. A. Aronson, L. E. Nystrom, J.
D. Cohen, Science 300, 1755 (2003).
7. K. Izuma, D. N. Saito, N. Sadato, Neuron 58, 284 (2008).
8. G. Tabibnia, A. B. Satpute, M. D. Lieberman, Psychol. Sci.
19, 339 (2008).
9. J. K. Rilling et al., Neuron 35, 395 (2002).
10. J. Moll et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103, 15623
11. J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss (New York, Basic Books,
1969), vol. 1.
12. R. F. Baumeister, M. R. Leary, Psychol. Bull. 117, 497
13. K. D. Williams, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 58, 425 (2007).
14. R. I. M. Dunbar, Evol. Anthropol. 6, 178 (1998).
15. M. E. Raichle et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 98, 676
13 FEBRUARY 2009
Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do
They Do It?
Michael E. McCullough1
Department of Psychology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
Forgiveness is a suite of
prosocial motivational changes
that occurs after a person has incurred a transgression. People
who are inclined to forgive their
transgressors tend to be more
agreeable, more emotionally stable, and, some research suggests, more spiritually or
religiously inclined than people
who do not tend to forgive their
transgressors. Several psychological processes appear to foster or inhibit forgiveness. These
processes include empathy for
the transgressor, generous attributions and appraisals regarding the transgression and
transgressor, and rumination
about the transgression. Interpreting these findings in light
of modern trait theory would
help to create a more unified
understanding of how personality might influence forgiveness.
forgiveness; research; review;
personality; theory
Relating to others—whether
strangers, friends, or family—inevitably exposes people to the risk of
being offended or harmed by those
other people. Throughout history
and across cultures, people have
developed many strategies for responding to such transgressions.
Two classic responses are avoidance
and revenge—seeking distance from
the transgressor or opportunities to
harm the transgressor in kind. These
responses are normal and common,
but can have negative conse-
quences for individuals, relationships, and perhaps society as a
Psychologists have been investigating interpersonal transgressions
and their aftermath for years. However, although many of the world’s
religions have advocated the concept of forgiveness as a productive
response to such transgressions
(McCullough & Worthington, 1999),
scientists have begun only recently
to devote sustained attention to forgiveness. Nevertheless, researchers
have made substantial progress in
illuminating forgiveness during this
short amount of time.
Most psychologists concur with
Enright, Gassin, and Wu (1992) that
forgiveness is distinct from pardon
(which is more apposite to the legal
realm), condonation (which implies
justifying the transgression), and
excusing (which implies recognition
that the transgressor had a good
reason for committing the transgression). Most scholars also concur
that forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation—a term implying restoration of a relationship. But what is
forgiveness foundationally? The
first definition for “forgive” in
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged
Dictionary (1983) is “to give up resentment against or the desire to
punish; to stop being angry with;
to pardon” (p. 720). Although this
definition conflates the concepts of
forgiveness and pardon, it nearly
suffices as an adequate psychological definition because it points to
Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.
what is perhaps the essence of forgiveness: prosocial motivational
change on the victim’s part. By using the term “prosocial,” I am suggesting that when people forgive,
they become less motivated to harm
their transgressor (or their relationship with the transgressor) and, simultaneously, become more motivated to act in ways that will
benefit the transgressor (or their relationship with the transgressor).
My colleagues and I have assumed that most people are motivated (at least initially) to respond
to transgressions with other forms
of negative behavior—particularly,
to avoid contact with the transgressor and to seek revenge. When people forgive, they counteract or
modulate these motivations to
avoid or seek revenge so that the
probability of restoring benevolent
and harmonious interpersonal relations with their transgressors is
increased (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001; McCullough et al., 1998; McCullough,
Worthington, & Rachal, 1997). When
people indicate that they have forgiven a transgressor, we believe they
are indicating that their perceptions
of the transgression and transgressor no longer stimulate motivations
for avoidance and revenge. Instead,
a forgiver experiences the return of
benevolent, constructive motivations
regarding the transgressor. In this
conceptualization, forgiveness is not
a motivation per se, but rather, a
complex of prosocial changes in
one’s motivations.
Locating forgiveness at the motivational level, rather than at the
level of overt behaviors, accommodates the fact that many people
who would claim to have forgiven
someone who has harmed them
might not behave in any particularly new and benevolent way toward their transgressors. Forgiveness might not cause an employee
who forgives her boss for an insult
to behave any less negatively toward the boss: Avoidance and re-
venge in the workplace can put
one’s job at risk, so most people are
probably careful to inhibit the expression of such negative motivations in the first place, regardless of
how strong they might have been
as a result of the transgression. The
motivational definition does imply,
however, that the employee would
experience a reduced potential for
avoidant and vengeful behavior
(and an increased potential for benevolent behavior) toward the boss,
which might or might not be expressed overtly. A motivational definition also accommodates the fact
that someone can make public gestures of forgiveness toward his or her
transgressor even in the absence of
such prosocial motivational changes.
How would one describe the
sorts of people who tend to engage
in the motivational transformations
collectively called forgiveness?
What psychological processes appear to help people forgive? Several
research teams have been investigating these questions in detail. In
this article, I describe what psychological science has revealed about
who tends to forgive and the psychological processes that may foster or hinder forgiveness for specific transgressions.
Researchers have found that the
disposition to forgive is correlated
(positively or negatively) with a
broad array of variables, including
several personality traits, psychological symptoms, moral emotions, hope,
and self-esteem (e.g., see Berry,
Worthington, Parrott, O’Connor,
& Wade, in press; Tangney, Fee,
Reinsmith, Boone, & Lee, 1999). For
simplicity, it is useful to reduce this
potentially bewildering array of correlates to a smaller set of higherorder personality factors, such as
those in the Five Factor (or Big Five)
personality taxonomy (McCrae &
Costa, 1999). Several recent research
efforts suggest that the disposition
to forgive may be related most
strongly to two of these higher-order
dimensions: agreeableness and emotional stability (Ashton, Paunonen,
Helmes, & Jackson, 1998; Berry et al.,
in press; McCullough et al., 2001; McCullough & Hoyt, 1999). Some evidence also suggests that the disposition to forgive is related positively to
religiousness and spirituality.
nerability to experiences of negative
emotion. Emotionally stable people
also tend not to be moody or overly
sensitive. Several studies demonstrate
that people who are high in emotional stability score higher on measures of the disposition to forgive
than do their less emotionally stable counterparts (Ashton et al.,
1998; Berry et al., in press; McCullough & Hoyt, 1999).
Religiousness and Spirituality
Agreeableness is a personality dimension that incorporates traits such
as altruism, empathy, care, and generosity. Highly agreeable people tend
to thrive in the interpersonal realm
and experience less conflict in relationships than less agreeable people do. Trait theorists and researchers have long been aware that
agreeable people typically are
rated highly on descriptors such as
“forgiving” and low on descriptors
such as “vengeful.” Research specifically on the disposition to forgive has
also confirmed the agreeableness-forgiveness association (Ashton et al.,
1998; McCullough & Hoyt, 1999).
People who appear dispositionally inclined to forgive also possess
many of the lower-order traits that
agreeableness subsumes. For instance, compared with people who
are not inclined to forgive, they tend
to be less exploitative of and more
empathic toward others (Tangney et
al., 1999). They also report higher
levels of moral responsibility and
demonstrate a greater tendency to
share resources with people who
have been rude and inconsiderate
to them (Ashton et al., 1998).
Emotional Stability
Emotional stability is a personality dimension that involves low vul-
Copyright © 2001 American Psychological Society
A third personality trait that
might be related to the disposition
to forgive—and one that recent research suggests is empirically distinct from the Big Five personality
factors—is religiousness or spirituality. A review of results from
seven studies suggested that people who consider themselves to be
highly religious or spiritual tend
to value forgiveness more highly
and see themselves as more forgiving than do people who consider
themselves less religious or spiritual (McCullough & Worthington,
Despite the consistency of the existing evidence on this point, few
studies have addressed whether
religiousness and spirituality are
associated with forgiving specific
transgressors for specific, real-life
transgressions. Indeed, studies addressing this issue hint that religiousness-spirituality and forgiveness of individual transgressions
may be essentially unrelated (e.g.,
McCullough & Worthington, 1999).
Therefore, it is possible that religious and spiritual people are no
more forgiving than are less religious and spiritual people in real
life, but only believe themselves
(or aspire) to be highly forgiving.
The connection of religiousness and
spirituality to forgiveness of actual
transgressions remains to be investigated more fully (McCullough &
Worthington, 1999).
Recent research has also helped
to illuminate the psychological processes that people employ when they
forgive. The processes that have been
studied to date include empathy, attributions and appraisals, and rumination.
Empathy for the Transgressor
Empathy has been defined by
some scholars as the vicarious experience of another person’s emotional state, and by others as a specific emotion characterized by
compassion, tenderness, and sympathy. Empathy (defined as a specific emotional state) for a particular transgressor correlates strongly
with the extent to which a victim
forgives the transgressor for a particular transgression. In several correlational studies (McCullough et
al., 1997, 1998; Worthington et al.,
2000), people’s reports of the extent
to which they had forgiven a specific transgressor were highly correlated with the extent to which they
experienced empathy for the transgressor.
Empathy also helps explain why
some social-psychological variables
influence forgiveness. The wellknown effect of transgressors’ apologies on victims’ likelihood of forgiving apparently is almost totally
mediated by the effects of the apologies on victims’ empathy for the
transgressors (McCullough et al.,
1997, 1998). When transgressors
apologize, they implicitly express
some degree of fallibility and vulnerability, which might cause victims to feel empathic, thereby mot i v ating them to forgive the
transgressors. Also, research on psychological interventions designed to
help people forgive specific transgressors has revealed that empathy
fosters forgiveness. Indeed, empathy for the transgressor is the only
psychological variable that has, to
date, been shown to facilitate forgiveness when induced experimentally (McCullough et al., 1997; Worthington et al., 2000), although
experimental research on this issue
is still in its infancy.
Generous Attributions
and Appraisals
Another factor associated with
the extent to which someone forgives a specific transgressor is the
extent to which the victim makes
generous attributions and appraisals about the transgression and
transgressor. Compared with people who have not forgiven their
transgressors, people who have forgiven their transgressors appraise
the transgressors as more likable
(Bradfield & Aquino, 1999), and the
transgressors’ explanations for the
transgressions as more adequate and
honest (Shapiro, 1991). In such situations, forgiveness is also related to
the victim’s appraisal of the severity of the transgression (Shapiro,
1991). People who tend to forgive
their spouses also tend to attribute
less responsibility to their spouses
for their negative behavior than do
people who do not tend to forgive
their spouses (Fincham, 2000).
Thus, forgivers apparently are inclined to give their transgressors
“the benefit of the doubt.” Whether
the correlations between appraisals-attributions and forgiveness reflect the causal effects of attributional
and appraisal processes, or simply
reflect victims’ accurate perceptions
of the actual qualities of transgressors and transgressions that cause
them to be more or less forgivable,
remains to be explored more fully
in the future.
Rumination About
the Transgression
A third factor associated with
the extent to which someone for-
Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.
gives a specific transgressor is the
extent to which the victim ruminates about the transgression. Rumination, or the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts, affects,
and images about past events, appears to hinder forgiveness. The
more people brood about a transgression, the higher are their levels of
revenge and avoidance motivation
(McCullough et al., 1998, 2001). In a
recent longitudinal study, my colleagues and I also found that victims who continued to ruminate
about a particular transgression
made considerably less progress in
forgiving the transgressor during an
8-week follow-up period (McCullough et al., 2001). This longitudinal evidence indicates that the degree to which people reduce their
ruminations about a particular transgression over time is a good predictor of how much progress they will
make in forgiving their transgressor.
So far, research has shown that
people who are more agreeable,
more emotionally stable, and (possibly) more spiritual or religious have
a stronger disposition to forgive than
do their less agreeable, less emotionally stable, and less spiritually and
religiously inclined counterparts.
Moreover, research has shown that
empathizing with the transgressor,
making generous attributions and
appraisals regarding the transgressor and transgression, and refraining from rumination about the
transgression are associated with the
extent to which a victim forgives a
specific transgressor.
An interesting step for future
research on the personality factors
and psychological mechanisms associated with forgiveness would be
to explore the specific cognitive and
emotional habits of agreeable, emotionally stable, and (perhaps) reli-
giously or spiritually inclined people that predispose them to forgive.
For example, agreeableness reflects
a tendency toward kindness and
prosociality, so perhaps agreeable
people are particularly inclined to
experience empathy for their transgressors. They might also be inclined
to perceive the transgressions they
have incurred as less intentional and
less severe, and their transgressors as
more likable and contrite, than do
less agreeable people.
Likewise, emotionally stable
people might find forgiveness easier than people who are less emotionally stable because of perceptual processes: Emotionally stable
people perceive many environmental factors—including physical pain
and negative life events—less negatively than do less emotionally stable people. Emotionally stable people also ruminate less about negative
life events. Research addressing such
potential links between personality
traits and psychological processes
would enrich psychology’s understanding of how personality might
influence the extent to which people forgive particular transgressors.
Such empirical advances should
be coupled with theoretical refinements. It might prove particularly
useful to frame such investigations
in the context of modern trait theory. Trait theorists such as McCrae
and Costa (1999) have advocated for
conceptualizing the empirical links
between traits and real-life behavioral
proclivities as causal connections that
reflect how basic tendencies (i.e., traits)
are “channelized” into characteristic
adaptations, or approaches to negotiating life within one’s own cultural and
environmental context. Using McCrae and Costa’s framework to theorize about forgiveness might explain
how the basic, biologically based
tendencies that are reflected in measures of higher-order personality dimensions lead people to use forgiveness to address certain problems
encountered in daily life—namely,
interpersonal transgressions.
Such a theoretical framework
could lead to other interesting
questions: Insofar as forgiveness can
be viewed as a characteristic adaptation of agreeable and emotionally
stable people, why might agreeable
and emotionally stable people be
predisposed to use forgiveness for
navigating their social worlds? Is forgiveness a by-product of other characteristic adaptations resulting from
agreeableness and emotional stability (such as a capacity for empathy, a
tendency to make generous attributions regarding the negative behavior of other people, or an ability
to refrain from rumination about
negative events)? Or is it more accurate to view forgiveness as a goal
to which agreeable and emotionally stable people actively strive,
using the other characteristic psychological adaptations (e.g., capacity for empathy, tendency to form
generous attributions, disinclination
to ruminate) associated with agreeableness and emotional stability as
footholds on the climb toward that
goal? Answers to these questions
would raise even more interesting
questions. In any case, more sophisticated theorizing would transform this new area of research
from simply a search for the correlates of forgiveness to a quest to
truly understand forgiveness and
its place in human personality and
social functioning.
Recommended Reading
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T., Jr. (1999).
(See References)
McCullough, M.E., Bellah, C.G., Kilpatrick, S.D., & Johnson, J.L.
(2001). (See References)
McCullough, M.E., Pargament, K.I.,
& Thoresen, C.T. (Eds.). (2000).
Forgiveness: Theory, research, and
practice. New York: Guilford.
McCullough, M.E., Rachal, K.C.,
Sandage, S.J., Worthington, E.L.,
Brown, S.W., & Hight, T.L. (1998).
(See References)
McCullough, M.E., & Worthington,
E.L. (1999). (See References)
Copyright © 2001 American Psychological Society
1. Address correspondence to Michael
McCullough, Department of Psychology,
Southern Methodist University, PO Box
750442, Dallas, TX 75275-0442; e-mail:
Ashton, M.C., Paunonen, S.V., Helmes, E., & Jackson, D.N. (1998). Kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and the Big Five personality factors.
Evolution and Human Behavior, 19, 243–255.
Berry, J.W., Worthington, E.L., Parrott, L., O’Connor, L.E., & Wade, N.G. (in press). Dispositional forgivingness: Development and
construct validity of the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgivingness (TNTF). Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Bradfield, M., & Aquino, K. (1999). The effects of
blame attributions and offender likeableness
on forgiveness and revenge in the workplace.
Journal of Management, 25, 607–631.
Enright, R.D., Gassin, E.A., & Wu, C. (1992). Forgiveness: A developmental view. Journal of
Moral Education, 21, 99–114.
Fincham, F.D. (2000). The kiss of the porcupines:
From attributing responsibility to forgiving.
Personal Relationships, 7, 1–23.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T., Jr. (1999). A five-factor theory of personality. In L.A. Pervin & O.P.
John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and
research (pp. 139–153). New York: Guilford.
McCullough, M.E., Bellah, C.G., Kilpatrick, S.D., &
Johnson, J.L. (2001). Vengefulness: Relationships with forgiveness, rumination, well-being, and the Big Five. Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, 27, 601–610.
McCullough, M.E., & Hoyt, W.T. (1999, August).
Recovering the person from interpersonal forgiving.
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
American Psychological Association, Boston.
McCullough, M.E., Rachal, K.C., Sandage, S.J.,
Worthington, E.L., Brown, S.W., & Hight, T.L.
(1998). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships: II. Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 75, 1586–1603.
McCullough, M.E., & Worthington, E.L. (1999).
Religion and the forgiving personality. Journal
of Personality, 67, 1141–1164.
McCullough, M.E., Worthington, E.L., & Rachal,
K.C. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321–336.
Shapiro, D.L. (1991). The effects of explanations on
negative reactions to deceit. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36, 614–630.
Tangney, J., Fee, R., Reinsmith, C., Boone, A.L., &
Lee, N. (1999, August). Assessing individual differences in the propensity to forgive. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American
Psychological Association, Boston.
Webster’s new universal unabridged dictionary. (1983).
New York: Dorset and Baker.
Worthington, E.L., Kurusu, T.A., Collins, W., Berry,
J.W., Ripley, J.S., & Baier, S.N. (2000). Forgiving
usually takes time: A lesson learned by studying interventions to promote forgiveness. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 28, 3–20.
The How of Happiness
The How of Happiness
A Scientific Ap p roach to
Getting the Life You Want
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.
New York
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. •
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a
division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL,
England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) •
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of
Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel
Park, New Delhi–110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632,
New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24
Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2007 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2007
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint “The Journey” from Dream Work by
Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1986 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lyubomirsky, Sonja.
The how of happiness : a scientific approach to getting the life you want / Sonja Lyubomirsky.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN: 978-1-1012-0280-7
1. Happiness. I. Title.
BF575.H27L98 2008
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of
both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the
permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic
editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support
of the author’s rights is appreciated.
To Gabriella and Alexander,
the biggest hows behind
my happiness
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
—Mary Oliver
Part One
How to Attain Real and Lasting Happiness
1. Is It Possible to Become Happier?
A Program for Lasting Happiness
Do You Know What Makes You Happy?
Discovering the Real Keys to Happiness
The Most Rewarding “Work” You’ll Ever Do
Why Be Happy?
2. How Happy Are You and Why?
Where Do You Fit In?
Happiness Myths
The Limits of Life Circumstances
The Happiness Set Point
The Promise of Intentional Activity
3. How to Find Happiness Activities That Fit Your Interests, Your
Values, and Your Needs
Three Ways That Strategies Can Fit
Corniness, Again
Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic
P.S. More Options
Final Words
Part Two
Happiness Activities
Foreword to Part Two: Before You Begin
4. Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking
Happiness Activity No. 1: Expressing Gratitude
Happiness Activity No. 2: Cultivating Optimism
Happiness Activity No. 3: Avoiding Overthinking and Social
5. Investing in Social Connections
Happiness Activity No. 4: Practicing Acts of Kindness
Happiness Activity No. 5: Nurturing Social Relationships
6. Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma
Happiness Activity No. 6: Developing Strategies for Coping
Happiness Activity No. 7: Learning to Forgive
7. Living in the Present
Happiness Activity No. 8: Increasing Flow Experiences
Happiness Activity No. 9: Savoring Life’s Joys
Final Words
8. Happiness Activity No. 10: Committing to Your Goals
Six Benefits of Committed Goal Pursuit
What Kinds of Goals Should You Pursue?
Recommendations for Committed Goal Pursuit
9. Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul
Happiness Activity No. 11: Practicing Religion and Spirituality
Happiness Activity No. 12: Taking Care of Your Body
Happiness Activity No. 12: Taking Care of Your Body (Physical
Happiness Activity No. 12: Taking Care of Your Body (Acting
Like a Happy Person)
Part Three
Secrets to Abiding Happiness
10. The Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness
The First How: Positive Emotion
The Second How: Optimal Timing and Variety
The Third How: Social Support
The Fourth How: Motivation, Effort, and Commitment
The Fifth How: Habit
The Promise of Abiding Happiness: An Afterword
Postscript: If You Are Depressed
What Is Depression?
The Causes of Depression
The Most Effective Treatments for Depression
The Cure for Unhappiness Is Happiness
Surmounting Setbacks
Appendix: Additional Happiness Activities That May Fit
The How of Happiness
All of us want to be happy, even if we don’t admit it openly or choose to
cloak our desire in different words. Whether our dreams are about
professional success, spiritual fulfillment, a sense of connection, a purpose
in life, or love and sex, we covet those things because ultimately we believe
that they will make us happier. Yet few of us truly appreciate just how much
we can improve our happiness or know precisely how to go about doing it.
To step back and consider your deep-seated assumptions about how to
become a happier person and whether it’s even possible for you—what I
hope this book will spur you to do—is to understand that becoming happier
is realizable, that it’s in your power, and that it’s one of the most vital and
momentous things that you can do for yourself and for those around you.
What are the meanings and mysteries of happiness? Is it possible to
acquire more of it, and can new happiness ever endure? These are
foundational questions to which I have devoted my entire career as a
research psychologist. When I was beginning my investigations, as a twentytwo-year-old psychology graduate student, the study of well-being wasn’t a
well-regarded choice, the subject matter considered elusive, unscientific,
“soft,” and “fuzzy.” But recently happiness has exploded as a hot topic in the
social science community, a symptom, perchance, of the Western twenty-firstcentury individualistic zeitgeist.
Alas, has happiness today become a fad, like hula hoops, big hairdos,
and Fonzie? It can certainly appear so, with the market saturated with
newspaper and magazine pieces, television documentaries, books, quotes,
blogs, and podcasts on the topic, the vast majority of which are relatively
uninformed by empirical data. Not infrequently, this frenzy drives
researchers like myself to want to keep a distance, yet I think it’s essential to
engage in the national discussion about happiness and insist that it abide by
strict scientific standards. Why? Because I believe deeply in the importance
of the scientific study of happiness and well-being. The majority of people in
the world, across vast continents and cultures, profess that being happy is
one of their most cherished goals in life—for themselves and, above all, for
their children. What’s more, happiness offers myriad rewards, not just for the
happy person but for his or her family, workplace, community, nation, and
society. Working on how to become happier, the research suggests, will not
only make a person feel better but will also boost his or her energy,
creativity, and immune system, foster better relationships, fuel higher
productivity at work, and even lead to a longer life.1 Happiness, in my
humble opinion, is the Holy Grail, “the meaning and the purpose of life,” as
Aristotle famously said, “the whole aim and end of human existence.”
The science of happiness deserves to be more than a fad. Striving to be
happy is a serious, legitimate, and worthy aim. If you consult the ancient texts
in history, literature, or philosophy, you’ll also find that it’s eternal. Many of
us suffer, and many more feel empty and unfulfilled, yet to attain more joy,
less anguish, more tranquillity, and less insecurity is a venerable goal. I have
been conducting research in this field for eighteen years, initially as a
doctoral student at Stanford University and then and now as a professor at the
University of California, Riverside. In the intervening years I have seen the
science of happiness grow as part of a movement called positive psychology,
the psychology of what makes life worth living. The label comes from the
conviction that empowering people to develop a positive state of mind—to
live the most rewarding and happiest lives they can—is just as important as
psychology’s traditional focus on repairing their weaknesses and healing
their pathologies. The focus on flourishing and fulfillment may seem like a
wise and obvious choice, yet psychology for the last half of the twentieth
century was fixated on disease, disorder, and the negative side of life.2
The goals of today’s psychologists are grander and more ambitious.
During the past ten years psychological science has made tremendous
advances in knowledge about not only how to treat depression—that is, how
to lift people from feeling terrible to feeling good—but how to elevate them
to feeling great. We’re in a new era, each month witnessing hot-off-the-press
publications about how to achieve and sustain happiness, how to make life
more fulfilling, more productive, and more enjoyable. Unfortunately, these
findings are typically disseminated formally and informally only among
scientists or else published in technical academic journals subscribed by
universities and lying beyond the reach of the nonexpert. In this book I have
assembled and interpreted the discoveries about how to become happier,
using them as jumping-off points to teach skills that people can use to shift to
a higher and sustainable level of well-being.
Allow me temporary license to make some lofty claims. First, the star of The
How of Happiness is science, and the happiness-increasing strategies that I
and other social psychologists have developed are its key supporting players.
My story is that of a research scientist, not a clinician, life coach, or selfhelp guru. To my knowledge, this is the first how-to-become-happier book
authored by someone who has actually conducted research revealing how
people can achieve a greater sense of happiness in their lives. Friends and
colleagues have urged me to write this book for many years, but only now do
I believe that the scientific advances in the field are solid and rigorous
enough to interpret and translate into specific recommendations. As a result,
The How of Happiness is different from many self-help books inasmuch as it
represents a distillation of what researchers of the science of happiness,
including myself, have uncovered in their empirical investigations. Every
suggestion that I offer is supported by scientific research; if evidence is
mixed or lacking on a particular subject, I plainly say so. Notes and
references are provided for all theories, statistics, and original research. If
you are interested in any specific topic area in these pages and aspire to
pursue it more deeply, the notes will tell you where to go. If you find such
interruptions distracting, feel free to disregard them.
Why should readers care about whether the advice they read in self-help
books is supported by science? Because empirical research holds multiple
advantages over anecdotal or clinical observations. By applying the
scientific method, researchers have the ability to disentangle cause and effect
and to study a phenomenon systematically, without biases or preconceptions.
Thus, if a magazine article proclaims that daily meditations make people
happier or that a natural herb alleviates headaches, only a true double-blind
experiment in which participants are randomly assigned to the meditation (or
natural herb) condition and others to a control group can determine if these
claims are true. Although science is imperfect, we can be much more
confident in its conclusions than in those of a single individual proffering
advice based on his or her limited experience and assumptions.
A newspaper reader once wrote the following eloquent letter to the
editor, on the subject of science:
There are questions of faith, such as “Does God exist?” There are questions
of opinion, such as “Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?” There
are debate questions, such as “Should abortion be legal?” And then there are
questions that can be answered to a degree of certainty by the application of
the scientific method, which are called empirical questions—in other words,
those that can be largely settled by the evidence.3
Whether it’s possible to learn how to become lastingly happier and how
exactly you can go about doing so turns out to be just such an empirical
question. My friend and research collaborator Ken Sheldon and I received a
grant for more than one million dollars from the National Institute of Mental
Health to fund research on the possibility of becoming happier. Along with a
team of gifted graduate students, Ken and I have been using this grant to
conduct so-called happiness interventions, a scientific term we use to refer
not to confrontations with addicts but to experiments that aim to find out
which happiness-boosting strategies are effective—and how and why.
(Incidentally, both types of “interventions” share the notion that for major
change to happen, a break with the status quo must be achieved.) Our
research from such experimental interventions suggests, as you will soon
learn in these pages, that enjoying a real increase in your own happiness is in
fact attainable, if you are prepared to do the work. If you make a decision to
be happier in your life, and you understand that this is a weighty decision that
will take effort, commitment, and a certain amount of discipline, know that
you can make it happen.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists the first, second,
and third definitions of the adverb how as follows: “1a: in what matter or
way b: for what reason: why c: with what meaning: to what effect.” The How
of Happiness embraces each of these definitions in full. Above all, this is a
book about how to become a happier person, supplying you a road map—a
dozen happiness-increasing strategies—for the matter or way to get there
and for how to choose the strategies that fit you best. Further, understanding
the precise reasons that the strategies are successful (i.e., why they work) is
just as important as knowing what they are and how to apply them optimally.
Finally, the meaning and effects of being happier—the multiple benefits and
consequences for yourself, your family, and your community—is another vital
theme that I address.
Backed by the results of our work with thousands of research
participants, I deliver in The How of Happiness a theory of the determinants
of happiness, a unifying theory of a sort, which encapsulates for you in one
take everything that scientists currently know about what makes people happy
and the implications for attaining ever-greater well-being. In a sense, the
many drips and drabs you may have picked up about the subject of happiness
from other sources converge meaningfully in this book into a single
integrated whole. And essential to my idea that we can maximize our own
happiness is the notion of the 40 percent solution.
As it happens, “The 40 Percent Solution” was one of this book’s original
titles, because it is effectively the tool that underlies the promise of becoming
happier, the answer to the question of how the realization of greater
happiness is possible and what this book is essentially all about. Why 40
percent? Because 40 percent is that part of our happiness that it’s in our
power to change through how we act and how we think, that portion
representing the potential for increased lasting happiness that resides in all of
us. It’s not a small number, and it’s not a huge number, but it’s a reasonable
and realistic number. The How of Happiness shows you how to apply that
number to your own circumstances. However, instead of showing you how to
move from the negative range toward a neutral point, the aim of most
therapies and treatments for depression, I shall spotlight how to advance
from your current (perhaps unrewarding) state (be it-8,-3, or +3) toward +6
or +8 or even higher.
This is how to read this book. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce you to the
foundations of the how-to-be-happier program described here, the theory
behind the 40 percent solution. These chapters lay out the principles and
empirical evidence behind two fundamental questions that we ask ourselves:
How can we decide what will make us happier, and how precisely should
we go about making it happen? You will learn what most of us believe will
make us happier, and in what ways we’re wrong, and what scientists have
shown actually determines happiness. In the 40 percent solution lies a bounty
of possibilities. Remaking yourself as a happier person, a new person, is
entirely in your hands, if you are willing to bring to bear some effort and
commitment, if you are ready, and only if you understand how to proceed.
Part I of the book will deliver you to that starting line.
At that point you’ll be geared up to begin introducing the thoughts and
behaviors that will make you happier, but where to start? This is where
Chapter 3 plays a decisive role. In this brief but important chapter, you will
complete a diagnostic test that will flag which particular strategies will work
to make you happier. Establishing this outright will direct you to what to take
away from the next part of the book, from Part II, which presents detailed
analyses and concrete illustrations of twelve specific happiness-enhancing
activities. The fit diagnostic will lead you to those chapters detailing
activities that apply specially to your personality, resources, goals, and
needs. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one secret to happiness, just as
there is no one miracle diet that works for all. Each of us needs to determine
which strategy, or set of strategies, will be most valuable, and once you have
completed the fit diagnostic in Chapter 3, you are prepared and equipped to
carry on. Find your best-fitting activities in Part II, and begin the challenging
but rewarding process of becoming a happier person.
That’s not all. The last part of the book contains two vital chapters.
Chapter 10 describes five important hows behind abiding happiness, offering
you insight into how and why the happiness strategies “work.” We know from
the field of medicine that patients who have a good understanding of the
thinking behind treatments are more likely to comply with them and benefit
from them. The same logic applies here. Some of you might be tempted to
skip this chapter, but you will be more successful in improving your own
happiness, not to mention more erudite, if you read on. A final chapter worth
reading—“Postscript: If You Are Depressed”—is reserved for those of you
who have been feeling sad or down during the last weeks. If this describes
you, you may even want to read this first.
Before I leave you, I must preempt an observation I made while writing
about the twelve happiness-enhancing strategies, and it is this: Why do many
of the most powerful happiness activities sound so…well, hokey? To be
sure, some of us find exhortations to “count your blessings,” “live in the
present,” “commit random acts of kindness,” “look on the bright side” or
“smile!” trivial at best and corny at worst. Yet as I shall plainly illustrate,
these strategies, when practiced in effortful and optimal ways, have been
borne out in numerous studies to be incredibly effective. Why aren’t they hip
then? Why don’t people shout them from mountain peaks and rooftops?
One reason, perhaps, is that such potent and complex happiness
recommendations are not easily condensed or drawn down to their essence.
Of course, we all would be happier if we truly and sincerely felt gratitude
for our health, our families, friends, homes, and jobs, even when those things
are imperfect. But somehow, boiling down this behavior to “Honey, you’d be
so much more content if you just counted your blessings” makes the
suggestion sound like a silly platitude. Alternatively, it may be that when we
translate into a universal maxim something so personal, so close to the bone
as how we wish to be or how we behave toward loved ones, the outcome
sounds watered down, hackneyed, and clichéd.
Last but not least, some people associate happiness-enhancing strategies
with people who seem to be too cheery and blissed out to be real. When I
was in high school, I had a friend whose bedroom was adorned (to the horror
of my fifteen-year-old self ) with Pollyanna-like assertions (“I Life,”
“Never Give Up,” etc.) beneath photos of cuddly kittens and dazzling sunsets.
Of course, now I look at some of those quotes, which I used to think were so
trite, and notice that they are powerful enough to include in my book. My
point is that you don’t have to hang quotations about happiness on your walls
or agree with the exact locution of some of the phrases I employ here to
experience the impact of what I am trying to impart. Above all, understand
that there are many faces of happiness aside from the ubiquitous smiley face
and the inspirational poster. The face of happiness may be someone who is
intensely curious and enthusiastic about learning; it may be someone who is
engrossed in plans for his next five years; it may be someone who can
distinguish between the things that matter and the things that don’t; it may be
someone who looks forward each night to reading to her child. Some happy
people may appear outwardly cheerful or transparently serene, and others are
simply busy. In other words, we all have the potential to be happy, each in
our own way. Yet what I hope you’ll come to appreciate from reading this
book is the notion that the basic strategies for improving happiness in our
day-to-day lives are less daunting than you might once have thought.
Growing up in both Russia and the United States, I’ve known some very
unhappy people in my life. I’ve also witnessed more than one friend become,
and remain, genuinely happier as she grew, changed, and matured. This book
is the product of years of thinking, reading, and conducting research on how
we can accomplish this feat. Whether you personally yearn to become
happier or know someone who does, or you are intellectually curious about
what scientists currently understand about the causes and potential for
abiding well-being, I hope you will be enriched and enlightened by these
Part One
How to Attain Real and
Lasting Happiness
Is It Possible to Become Happier?
To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.
—William James
What do you think would make you happier? Take a moment to consider.
Might it be…
A relationship?
More flexibility at work?
A new job that better provides for you and your family?
An extra bedroom?
A more attentive spouse?
A baby?
Looking younger?
Relief from your bad back?
Losing weight?
Your child excelling at school?
Knowing what you really want to do with your life?
More supportive, loving parents?
Cure from a chronic illness or disability?
More money?
More time?
If your answers look anything like these, all of which friends have
confided to me over the years, you’re in for a surprise. None of these things
will make you substantially happier. But this doesn’t mean that the goal of
finding lasting happiness is unrealistic or naive. The catch is that we tend to
look for happiness in the wrong places. What we believe would make a huge
difference in our lives actually, according to scientific research, makes only
a small difference, while we overlook the true sources of personal happiness
and well-being.
In almost every nation, from the United States, Greece, and Slovenia to
South Korea, Argentina, and Bahrain, when asked what they want most in
life, people put happiness at the top of their lists.1 Learning how to be
happier is critical for those of us who are currently depressed or low, and it
may be invaluable to everyone. In this book, I shall show you why our desire
to be happier isn’t just a pipe dream.
A Program for Lasting Happiness
You may have picked up this book because you believe that you are not living
up to your potential in your personal or working life, or perhaps you are not
as happy and fulfilled as you yearn to be. Nationally representative samples
of U.S. adults indicate that slightly more than half of us (54 percent) are
“moderately mentally healthy” yet not flourishing—that is, we lack great
enthusiasm for life and are not actively and productively engaged with the
world.2 This explains why the desire to be happier is felt not just by the
clinically depressed but by a wide range of us, from those of us who are not
as happy as we’d like to be, who sense that we’re not quite thriving, to those
who may be doing quite well yet want more—more joy, more meaning in
life, more stimulating relationships and jobs. Finally, some of us may have
once known true happiness but feel powerless to bring that moment back.
This sense of languishing or having fallen in a hole or being trapped in a
rut can be daunting. We may think that it would take a staggering amount of
energy and stamina to pull ourselves up. But I have hopeful news. The
“work” to heave yourself out of the hole and onto higher ground can start out
very small and will often yield immediate results. In one study, the University
of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman taught a single happinessenhancing strategy to a group of severely depressed people—that is, those
whose depression scores put them in the most extremely depressed category.
Although these individuals had great difficulty even leaving their beds, they
were instructed to log on to a Web site and engage in a simple exercise. The
exercise involved recalling and writing down three good things that
happened every day—for example, “Rosalind called to say hello,” “I read a
chapter of a book my therapist recommended,” and “The sun finally came out
today.” Within fifteen days their depressions lifted from “severely
depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed,” and 94 percent of them
experienced relief.3
So you see, research suggests that the initial steps to becoming happier
can be implemented straightaway. The first step involves recognizing that our
yearning to increase our happiness is not just wishful thinking. It is a vitally
important goal, one that we all have a right to pursue and the wherewithal to
achieve. Happiness isn’t a knock of good fortune that we must await, like the
end of rainy season. Neither is it something that we must find, like a freeway
exit or a lost wallet, if only we knew the secret path and if only we could
acquire the right job or the right boyfriend. Interestingly, the notion that
happiness must be found is so pervasive that even the familiar phrase pursuit
of happiness implies that happiness is an object that one has to chase or
discover. I don’t like that phrase. I prefer to think of the creation or
construction of happiness, because research shows that it’s in our power to
fashion it for ourselves.
You will learn in these pages that achieving lasting happiness does not
necessarily require, as a psychotherapist might tell you, digging deep into
your childhood, psychoanalyzing your past traumatic experiences, or
dissecting your habitual ways of relating to others. Nor is it essential to
secure a bigger paycheck, to obtain a cure from illness, or to recapture youth
or beauty. In this book, I describe strategies that you can start doing right
away and that will immediately boost your feelings of well-being, even if
you are deeply despondent. To continue accruing happiness-boosting
benefits, you will need to embark on a longer-term program. The good news
about a lifelong plan to build and sustain personal happiness is that the effort
to do so is greatest when the new behaviors and practices you’ll learn don’t
yet feel natural, but with time the required effort diminishes, as such
strategies become habitual and self-reinforcing. The How of Happiness
describes an ongoing happiness-enhancing program that you might choose to
begin today and undertake for the rest of your life. The only person who has
the power to make it happen is you.
A final note: If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, this happiness
program isn’t meant to replace established treatments such as cognitivebehavioral therapy and antidepressant medication. But you should consider it
a potent complement, which might help you feel better sooner, stronger, and
longer. See the “Postscript: If You Are Depressed” for more.
Do You Know What Makes You Happy?
At this point you may be feeling skeptical about the happiness program I’m
describing. If permanently boosting our happiness is so attainable, so within
reach, why, you might ask, are we so poor at it? Why do we try so often and
fail? The prime reason, I suspect, is that we have been conditioned to believe
that the wrong things will make us lastingly happy. Psychological scientists
have amassed persuasive evidence that we are routinely off base about what
will bring us pleasure and fulfillment, and as a result, we sometimes work to
make things happen that don’t actually make us happy.4 Perhaps the most
common error is that we assume that positive events, be they promotions at
work, clean bills of health, hot dates, or victories by our preferred
presidential candidates or football teams, will provide much more happiness
than they really do. Take materialism, the pursuit of money and possessions,
as an example. Why is it so hard for us (even myself!) to believe that money
really doesn’t make us happy? Because the truth is that money does make us
happy. But our misunderstanding, as one happiness researcher eloquently
explains, is that “we think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time,
and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.”5 Meanwhile, in our
effortful pursuit of such dead ends to pleasure, we end up ignoring other,
more effective routes to well-being.
Consider the cases of two people I interviewed who realized that the
things most of us think create happiness—wealth, fame, beauty—don’t really
matter all that much.
I was introduced to Neil one summer during the filming of a documentary
about the lives of very happy people.6 Neil had wanted to be a rock star
when he was young, and against all odds, he actually achieved his dream. As
the drummer for a successful folk-rock group, he made a fortune, appeared on
Saturday Night Live, was nominated for several Grammy awards, and, for a
decade, traveled the continents, touring with the band. Then his world
abruptly collapsed. The band broke up, the touring stopped, he lost the big
house, and his wife left him.
We spent an entire afternoon interviewing Neil at his new modest ranchstyle house, with a big pile of dirt blocking the front. The single father and
his two small children live on the outskirts of Winnipeg, in sparsely settled
prairie country, miles away from the nearest shop or school. Even in July the
wind was brisk when we visited, setting the tall, dry grasses blowing. It
struck me as the kind of place that must be bitter cold and desolate during the
long Manitoba, Canada, winters. A trip for milk, let alone a playdate, must
be hard to manage.
Neil immediately struck me as a person completely comfortable and at
peace with himself, genuine and at ease with his children, and fully engaged
in his music. Did being a wealthy rock star make Neil very happy? “I had it,
the money and fame,” he said, “and now I don’t, but my happiness level is the
same. There is no difference.”
I met Denise on the set of a talk show where she came to tell her story.
Denise lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She used to teach high school kids
with learning disabilities, and now she stays home with her three school-age
children. It’s not easy to be a full-time mother of three kids. Moreover, as she
was turning forty, Denise felt that she had let herself go: didn’t wear makeup,
stopped working out, looked tired all the time. Years spent under the
scorching Florida sun had made her look wrinkly, she believed, and much
older than her age. She put in an application for Extreme Makeover and, to
her delight, made it on the show.
The surgery took twelve hours. Denise had an eye lift, an upper and
lower forehead lift, and a full face-lift. A bump was taken out of her nose,
liposuction done under her chin, and laser resurfacing on her face. The
cosmetic changes were so well executed and seamless that the show’s
makeup artist, who spent at least a half hour working on Denise’s face, was
floored when I told her that Denise had been on Extreme Makeover. She
hadn’t noticed anything unusual about her reconstructed face.
After the surgical makeover, Denise felt that she had traveled back in
time; she looked ten years younger. She received a lot of attention—from
family, friends, strangers, media. “I think I was caught up with that,” she said.
“I had lived like a movie star, and my confidence went overboard.” She
considered leaving her husband and starting a new life.
A year later Denise came to her senses and realized that giving up her
marriage would have been a huge mistake. Did the plastic surgery make her
happier? “I do have to say it’s nice to have less wrinkles,” Denise confessed.
But it didn’t make her happier in the long run. “The makeover is nothing
compared to real happiness.”
Neil and Denise may have once thought, “If only I were rich…If only I
were famous…If only I were beautiful, I would be happy.” They would have
been wrong. Intuitions such as theirs, combined with an avalanche of
research evidence, have been formalized by my colleagues and me into a
theory of the causes of happiness, a theory that has decisive implications for
what you can do about your happiness, starting today. The story begins in an
unlikely Mayan Riviera village.
Discovering the Real Keys to Happiness
In January 2001 I traveled to a beautiful, serene resort in a small town in
Mexico, two hours outside Cancún, called Akumal. There, under a palapa
and warm breezes, about a dozen or so researchers in the then budding field
of positive psychology gathered to share their latest findings and brainstorm
new ideas. It was hard for me to concentrate at first; I had left my twentymonth-old daughter behind with her dad in Los Angeles and had just found
out that I was pregnant again. Nevertheless, several conversations that I had
in Akumal ended up transforming the shape and direction of my work. One of
those conversations was with fellow professors Ken Sheldon and David
Schkade. I had e-mailed them before the trip and asked if we could meet to
talk about writing an article that would categorize the different ways that
people pursue happiness. Sitting together, however, we rapidly realized that
almost no empirical research existed on this subject. Not only were
researchers generally unaware of what strategies people use to become
happier, but it became apparent to us that most psychologists were
pessimistic about the very notion of permanently increasing happiness. Two
findings had caught the imagination of the academic community at that time:
first, that happiness is heritable and extremely stable over the course of
people’s lives, and second, that people have a remarkable capacity to
become inured to any positive changes in their lives. Consequently, the logic
went, people cannot be made lastingly happier because any gains in
happiness would be temporary, and in the long term, most cannot help
returning to their original, or baseline, levels of well-being.
Ken, David, and I were skeptical of the conclusion that lasting happiness was
impossible and determined to prove that it was wide off the mark. The result
of our discussions over the next few years was a discovery about the causes
of well-being. Together we were essentially able to identify the most
important factors determining happiness, represented in the following simple
pie chart.7
What Determines Happiness?
Imagine a movie theater full of a hundred people. These hundred
individuals represent the full continuum of happiness: Some are
exceptionally happy, others less so, and still others are terribly unhappy. The
lower right slice of the pie shows that an astounding 50 percent of the
differences among people’s happiness levels can be accounted for by their
genetically determined set points. This discovery comes from the growing
research done with identical and fraternal twins that suggests that each of us
is born with a particular happiness set point that originates from our
biological mother or father or both, a baseline or potential for happiness to
which we are bound to return, even after major setbacks or triumphs.8 This
means that if with a magic wand, we could turn all hundred theatergoers into
genetic “clones” (or identical twins) of one another, they still would differ in
their happiness levels, but those differences would be reduced by 50 percent.
The set point for happiness is similar to the set point for weight. Some
people are blessed with a skinny dispositions: Even when they’re not trying,
they easily maintain their weight.9 By contrast, others have to work
extraordinarily hard to keep their weight at a desirable level, and the moment
they slack off even a bit, the pounds creep back on. The implication of this
finding for happiness is that like genes for intelligence or cholesterol, the
magnitude of our innate set points—that is, whether it is high (a six on a
seven-point scale) or low (a two) or in between (a four)—governs to a large
extent how happy we will be over the course of our lives.
Perhaps the most counterintuitive finding is that as the chart shows, only
about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by
differences in life circumstances or situations—that is, whether we are rich
or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.10 If
with a magic wand, we could put all hundred moviegoers into the same set of
circumstances (same house, same spouse, same place of birth, same face,
same aches and pains), the differences in their happiness levels would be
reduced by a measly additional 10 percent.
A great deal of science backs up this conclusion. For example, a wellknown study demonstrated that the richest Americans, those earning more
than ten million dollars annually, report levels of personal happiness only
slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ.11
And although married people are happier than single ones, the effect of
marriage on personal happiness is actually quite small; for example, in
sixteen countries, 25 percent of married people and 21 percent of singles
described themselves as “very happy.”12 This discovery that the
circumstances of our lives (like income and marital status) have such little
bearing on our well-being is astonishing to many of us, though Neil and
Denise would probably not be surprised. It may be hard to believe that such
things as riches, beauty, and perfect health have only a short-term and limited
influence on achieving happiness, but the evidence is formidable, and I offer
several intriguing explanations for it later in this book. If we can accept as
true that life circumstances are not the keys to happiness, we’ll be greatly
empowered to pursue happiness for ourselves.
To get back to the pie chart: Even if all hundred people in the theater
were identical twins and all had identical life situations, they still would
differ in how happy they are. This finding suggests to me that even after we
take into account our genetically determined personalities (i.e., who we are)
and the rich and complex circumstances of our lives (i.e., what we face), 40
percent of the differences in our happiness levels are still left unexplained.
What makes up this 40 percent? Besides our genes and the situations that we
confront, there is one critical thing left: our behavior. Thus the key to
happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and
not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or
better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional
activities. With this in mind, our pie chart illustrates the potential of the 40
percent that is within our ability to control, the 40 percent for room to
maneuver, for opportunities to increase or decrease our happiness levels
through what we do in our daily lives and how we think.13
This is terrific news. It means that all of us could be a great deal happier
if we scrutinized carefully what precise behaviors and thoughts very happy
people naturally and habitually engage in. Our untapped potential for
increasing our own happiness is precisely what much of my research has
focused on: systematically observing, comparing, and experimenting on very
happy and unhappy people. Below is a sample of my observations, as well
as those of other researchers, of the thinking and behavior patterns of the
happiest participants in our studies.
They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends,
nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers
and passersby.
They practice optimism when imagining their futures.
They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present
They make physical exercise a weekly and even daily habit.
They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions
(e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching their
children their deeply held values).
Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of
stresses, crises, and even tragedies. They may become just as
distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I,
but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in
coping in the face of challenge.
As I discuss at greater length in Chapters 4 through 9, a massive literature
reveals what kinds of attributes, thoughts, and behaviors characterize the
happiest people.14 In my laboratory and the laboratories of a few others,
ways of harnessing the power of our own thoughts and behaviors—that is,
our intentional activities—have been tested. We have conducted formal
happiness-increasing intervention studies devised to increase and maintain a
person’s happiness level over and above his or her set point.15 In Part II of
this book I introduce a dozen happiness-increasing strategies and practices in
detail, showing how they work in everyday life and describing the scientific
evidence supporting them. The list of things that very happy people do every
day, sampled above, may look intimidating, but that is because you do not,
and should not, try to be all those things. No one can do it all, and it is the
rare person who can achieve the greater part. What you can do is select just
one strategy (or a few) that will work for you. You are in control and can
influence your life from this day forward in a significant and meaningful way.
This is where you can begin.
To fashion a successful set of strategies for your individualized
happiness program, a vital requirement is wise selection. As with any lifechanging endeavor, some programs will be more effective and more
appropriate for particular individuals than for others. In Chapter 3, I
introduce an important self-diagnostic test, essentially, a questionnaire that
will help you identify which strategies will work best for you. Chapter 3 will
assist you in choosing the four happiness-boosting strategies that fit your
individual personality, your strengths, your goals, and your current situation.
Remember that the endeavor to become happier is about you—your interests,
your values, and your needs. Once you learn which activity will work best
for you, you’re more than halfway there.
The Most Rewarding “Work” You’ll Ever Do
It may be obvious that to achieve anything substantial in life—learn a
profession, master a sport, raise a child—a good deal of effort is required.
But many of us find it difficult to apply the notion of effort to our emotional
or mental lives. Without effort, we might “get lucky,” but like a long-forgotten
New Year’s resolution, the success will be short-lived.
Consider how much time and commitment many people devote to
physical exercise, whether it’s going to the gym, jogging, kickboxing, or
yoga. My research reveals that if you desire greater happiness, you need to
go about it in a similar way. In other words, becoming lastingly happier
demands making some permanent changes that require effort and commitment
every day of your life. Pursuing happiness takes work, but consider that this
“happiness work” may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.
Why Be Happy?
Why should we put forth all this effort in order to be happier? In case anyone
needed convincing, the scientific evidence reveals many compelling reasons
to aspire for greater happiness and fulfillment. My collaborators Ed Diener
and Laura King and I have documented a large and growing psychological
literature showing that becoming happier doesn’t just make you feel good.16
It turns out that happiness brings with it multiple fringe benefits. Compared
with their less happy peers, happier people are more sociable and energetic,
more charitable and cooperative, and better liked by others. Not surprisingly
then, happier people are more likely to get married and to stay married and to
have richer networks of friends and social support. Furthermore, contrary to
Woody Allen’s suggestion in Annie Hall that happy people are “shallow and
empty, and…have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” they actually show
more flexibility and ingenuity in their thinking and are more productive in
their jobs. They are better leaders and negotiators and earn more money.
They are more resilient in the face of hardship, have stronger immune
systems, and are physically healthier. Happy people even live longer.
Consider just two of the examples from above: money and marriage.
Comedian Henny Youngman once quipped, “What good is happiness? It can’t
buy money.” He was very funny, but he was wrong. One study has shown that
those who were happy as college freshmen had higher salaries sixteen years
later (when they were in their mid-thirties) without an initial wealth
advantage.17 In another study, which also followed undergraduates over time,
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.18
Indeed, happiness is so important that an entire country—admittedly a
very small country, the size of Switzerland—has made its goal to increase the
well-being of its citizens. The king of Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom in
the Himalayas, nestled between India and China, decided that the best way to
foster economic development would be to boost his nation’s gross domestic
happiness—that is, to focus on the GDH rather than on the GDP. Bhutan’s
emphasis on the happiness of its people above all else appears to have
produced society-wide benefits. Although most people in this tiny country
are subsistence farmers, they have what they need—food on the table and
universal health care—and have refused to make money from commercial
ventures that might compromise the health and beauty of their environment
and their egalitarian existence.
In sum, across all the domains of life, happiness appears to have
numerous positive by-products that few of us have taken the time to really
understand. In becoming happier, we not only boost experiences of joy,
contentment, love, pride, and awe but also improve other aspects of our
lives: our energy levels, our immune systems, our engagement with work and
with other people, and our physical and mental health. In becoming happier,
we bolster as well our feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem; we come
to believe that we are worthy human beings, deserving of respect. A final and
perhaps least appreciated plus is that if we become happier, we benefit not
only ourselves but also our partners, families, communities, and even society
at large.
How Happy Are You and Why?
Have you ever known someone who is deeply and genuinely happy?
A person who truly has the ability to see the world through rose-colored
glasses? Someone who appears composed and untroubled even in the face of
adversity? Perhaps it is a friend or a coworker or even a member of your
family. It’s hard not to envy such people. How do they do it? Why aren’t they
bothered or distraught by the strains and ordeals of everyday life, like most
of us?
It’s especially frustrating and perplexing to be around such individuals
when they’re in the same difficult or troubling situation as we are but seem
happy in spite of it. Say, for example, that you both share a tormenting boss, a
screamer who is never satisfied with your work. Or you both are in the first
year of law school and are loaded down with a crushing amount of reading
and homework. Or you both are new parents and overwhelmed with the sleep
deprivation, anxiety, and drudgery of caring for a newborn. Such situations
drag you down, making you moody, nerve-racked, and sometimes even
terribly unhappy and low. But this happy person you know seems able to
brush off the frustrations, the stresses, the hardships, and the disappointments,
to pick herself up each time and to put on a positive face. She sees challenge
where you see only threat. She takes an uplifting, optimistic perspective
when you feel distrustful and beaten down. She is galvanized to take action,
while you are sluggish and passive.
Such individuals may be mind-boggling and intimidating and, yes, even
off-putting at times. They can be demoralizing because they make us wonder
about our own dispositions. How can we be more like them? Can we ever be
as happy as they are? I’ve asked myself these questions too and decided that
the only way to find out is to do some research, to study genuinely happy
people systematically and intensively. By closely observing them, we can
learn a great deal not just about them but about ourselves.
In my interviews and experiments with very happy people, I’ve even
found a few who remain happy or are able to recover their happiness fairly
quickly after tragedies or major setbacks. Take the cases of Angela and
Angela is thirty-four and one of the happiest people that I ever interviewed.1
You wouldn’t guess it, however, from all she’s had to bear. When Angela
was growing up in Southern California, her mother was emotionally and
physically abusive to her, and her father did nothing to intervene. In addition
to what she endured at home, she was overweight as a teenager and
stigmatized at school. When Angela was in eleventh grade, her mother was
diagnosed with breast cancer, and the physical abuse ended. However, the
emotional abuse got only worse, until Angela couldn’t stand it any longer and
moved out to marry a man she’d known for just three months. She and her
husband moved up north and lived there for four years. Soon after the birth of
their daughter, Ella, they divorced, and Angela moved back to California,
where she still lives.
Angela is currently a single mother. Things are hard financially. Her exhusband doesn’t visit his daughter and pays no child support. To provide for
her small family, Angela has taken a crack at several careers. During her last
career change she felt as though she had finally found her dream job (as an
aesthetician), but she was fired unexpectedly, her hopes and finances in ruins.
She had to file for bankruptcy and go on welfare for a time. Right now she is
back in college full-time, working toward a degree in nursing.
Still, with all that has happened and all the challenges that have come to
pass, Angela considers herself a very happy person. Her daughter, Ella, to
whom she is extremely close, brings her endless joy. They relish reading The
Chronicles of Narnia together, going to free concerts, and snuggling in bed
watching videos. As Angela sees it, Ella doesn’t always have what the other
kids have, but she gets more love than she could possibly want. Angela also
has an infectious sense of humor, and when she laughs about her troubles—
the time on welfare, the day she lost her beloved job—it’s impossible not to
laugh along with her. She has made many friends—indeed, formed a whole
community of like-minded people—and they are a pleasure and a support to
her. She finds deep satisfaction in helping others heal from their own wounds
and traumas, for as she reasons, “It’s virtually impossible to face one’s
shadows alone.”
Like Angela, Randy endured a lot as a child. He lost two people close to him
to suicide, at age twelve his father and at age seventeen his best friend. When
he was in fifth grade, his mother left his father and moved the family out of
state and away from everyone he knew in order that she could live with her
boyfriend, Roy. Although Randy’s bond with his mother was, and still is,
strong, Roy belittled Randy, and their relationship was strained. Interestingly,
much like Angela, Randy escaped his home life by marrying too soon and too
young. His marriage was fraught with difficulty and finally ended when he
discovered the extent of his wife’s infidelities. Still, he was devastated
initially by the breakup and felt that he had had more than his share of loss
and death.
Today Randy is one of those happy people who make everyone around
them smile and laugh. He picked himself up after his divorce, moved to
another city, found work as a safety engineer, and eventually remarried. He is
now forty-three, remarried for three years, and step-father to three boys.
How did he do it? Randy is an eternal optimist and claims that seeing the
“silver lining in the cloud” has always been his key to survival. For example,
although some of his coworkers find their jobs frustrating and stressful, he
says that his allows him “to think outside the box.” Moreover, while a friend
of his struggles with stepchildren, Randy is overjoyed by “the opportunity to
be a dad.” Indeed, one of his favorite activities is watching his sons play
football. Others might look back on their childhoods with bitterness, but he
remembers the good times.
Where Do You Fit In?
Although they may appear unique, there are quite a few Randys and Angelas
around. Of course, there are many very unhappy individuals as well. All of
us can identify people who are exactly the opposite—that is, people who
never seem to be happy, even during the good times, who are chronically
sullen and sour, who accentuate the negative and focus on the downside of
everything, and appear to be unable to find much joy in life.
One such person I interviewed is Shannon. At twenty-seven Shannon is
studying for a certificate to teach English as a second language. She has a
boyfriend, who’s in school in Italy, and when he returns in two months, they
plan to move in together. Growing up, Shannon had an uneventful childhood,
a stable and modest home, and several close friends. Her family did a lot of
traveling all over the United States. Shannon told me that when she was in
eighth grade, her mother gave her a dog, Daisy, still alive today. Shannon
considers the dog one of her best friends.
But despite the lack of tragedy or trauma in her life, Shannon seems to
turn everything into a crisis. She found the transition from high school to
college extremely stressful and often felt crushed and overwrought about the
harder and less familiar workload. In the dormitory, she shared a room with
a roommate, who was generally a nice person but who had irritating habits,
like turning up the volume on the TV. Shannon was incredibly bothered by
this and grew more and more distant and hostile toward her roommate. When
Shannon finally was able to switch to a new roommate whom she liked and
admired, she was ecstatic at first but then became hurt that the other girl “was
never around.”
Today Shannon is very active. She rock climbs and Rollerblades in the
summer and snowboards and skis in the winter. She also told me that she
enjoys teaching and thinks there is mutual growth between the children she
currently tutors and herself. On the surface, her life is quite good. She has a
promising and enjoyable career ahead of her, a boyfriend, a stable family
life, even a dog she loves. However, Shannon sees herself as a generally
unhappy person. Although she is pleased with her academic achievements,
she believes that she can’t truly enjoy those achievements because of a lack
of self-confidence. Indeed, she minimizes any success by explaining it away
as caused by luck or persistence. Sometimes she even is haunted by the
feeling that she should have chosen a different career. Overall, Shannon feels
very alone and believes her life to be unsteady and her relationships
unreliable. She remembers her childhood fondly, as the only time she knew
“true happiness” and felt self-assured and carefree. Today she depends a
great deal on her boyfriend for positive feelings of self-worth, and she
experiences life as “very lonely” when he’s not around. She is prone to
overspend and overeat at such times. When Shannon feels particularly
insecure and hopeless, everything seems dark, and she finds herself sinking
into dejection and gloom.
Human happiness, like height or temperature or IQ, lies on a continuum, a
numerical scale that ranges from very, very low to very, very high. Shannon
represents the lower end of the happiness continuum. Randy and Angela are
at the high end. All of us fit somewhere on that scale, and it is critical to find
out where exactly that may be. No matter whether you are deeply depressed
or are simply not as happy as you’d like to be, before you can begin the
process of becoming happier, you need to determine your present personal
happiness level, which will provide your first estimate of your happiness set
From the Greek philosopher Aristotle to the father of psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, writers and thinkers have
offered wide-ranging definitions of happiness. Aristotle wrote that happiness
is “an expression of the soul in considered actions,” Freud noted that it’s a
matter of lieben und arbeiten—to love and to work—and Schulz famously
proclaimed, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Most of us, however, are well
aware of what happiness is and whether we are happy. To paraphrase the
late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, happiness is like obscenity:
We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.
I use the term happiness to refer to the experience of joy, contentment, or
positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good,
meaningful, and worthwhile. However, most of us don’t need a definition of
happiness because we instinctively know whether we are happy or not.
Academic researchers prefer the term subjective well-being (or simply wellbeing) because it sounds more scientific and does not carry the weight of
centuries of historical, literary, and philosophical subtexts.2 I use the terms
happiness and well-being interchangeably.3
So, how do you measure the degree to which you are a happy or an
unhappy person? Because no appropriate happiness thermometer exists,
researchers generally rely on self-reports. In much of my research with
human participants, I have used a popular simple four-item measure of
overall happiness that I developed and call the Subjective Happiness Scale.4
The title is fitting, inasmuch as happiness is inherently subjective and must be
defined from the perspective of the person. No one but you knows or should
tell you how happy you truly are. So reply to the four items opposite to
determine your current happiness level, which you need to know before you
can estimate your set point. (More on that later.)
For each of the following statements or questions, please circle
the number from the scale that you think is most appropriate in describing
you. (Carefully take note of the labels, or anchors, for the 1 to 7 scales, as
they differ for each of the four items.)
1) In general, I consider myself:
(2) Compared with most of my peers, I consider myself:
(3) Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of
what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this
characterization describe you?
(4) Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not
depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be. To what extent does
this characterization describe you?
STEP 1: Total = Item 1:
+ Item 2:
+ Item 3:
STEP 2: Happiness score = Total (from above)
+ Item 4:
divided by 4 =
Happiness score (2nd administration):
Happiness score (3rd administration):
As you may have gathered, the highest happiness score that you can get is
7 (if you give yourself a 7 on all four items) and the lowest is 1 (if you rate
yourself 1 on all four items). I have administered this scale to many different
groups of people, as have other researchers, and the average score runs from
about 4.5 to 5.5, depending on the group. College students tend to score
lower (averaging a bit below 5) than working adults and older, retired
people (who average 5.6).5
Now you have determined the value of your current happiness score. If
you’re past college age, and your happiness score is lower than 5.6, then
you’re less happy than the average person. To put it another way, more than
50 percent of people in your age group rate themselves higher on the scale. If
your score is greater than 5.6, then you’re happier than the average person.
Of course, what the “average person” is for you will depend on your gender,
your age, your occupation, ethnicity, etc. But what’s important to remember is
that no matter what your score is, you can become happier.
Some of us are likely to be not just slightly unhappy but clinically or subclinically depressed. If your happiness score is 4 or lower or if you’ve been
feeling down for more than a couple of weeks, I encourage you to complete a
depression scale. (If not, you may choose to skip this subsection.) The
depression scale takes less than ten minutes, and those minutes may turn out
to be inval…
Purchase answer to see full


Leave a comment