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Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her BA from Harvard University and her PhD in social psychology from Stanford University. Lyubomirsky and her research have been the recipients of many honors, including the 2002 Templeton Positive Psychology Prize and a multiyear grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her family.
Given how personal this book is, readers will surely want to know how you came to be involved in this field. What is it about happiness that compelled you to devote your career to it? What are some of the bumps in the road you’ve experienced? Can you point to inspiring teachers or “aha!” moments that set you on your way?
The truth is that my research on happiness had a serendipitous beginning. On my very first day of graduate school at Stanford, I spent an entire afternoon taking a walk around the campus with my new advisor, Lee Ross. He is a world expert on conflict and negotiation (a field not exactly akin to well-being field!), but he happened to raise with me the question of happiness that day. What is the secret to happiness? So, we started conducting some studies together, mostly very descriptive studies, in which we interviewed people who’d been nominated by their peers as being “very happy” or “very unhappy.” We were naïve at first about what we’d find, and so the interviews, as well as our later work, turned out to be very revealing.
That was 18 years ago, and those years have been challenging and thrilling. Since that first day, I’ve been investigating the question of why some people are happier than others and the question of how we can make people even happier. I often have the feeling of “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” However, at the beginning, I was pretty insecure about the research and my abilities as a researcher. In part, this was because the topic of happiness was not considered very scientific back then. Now, there are scores of researchers and serious scientists investigating happiness at every level – from the experimental social psychology laboratory to the neuroscience bench to the field.
What about your own most abiding sources of happiness? You talk about your children – what are some of the other aspects of life that have brought you the most happiness? Have you had any surprises on the road to happiness? Has your approach to happiness altered considerably with time?
Freud suggested that lieben und arbeiten – to love and to work – are the secrets to well-being, and that has certainly been true for me. My husband and my family. My work. They have been the most powerful and most enduring sources of happiness for me.
One way that my approach to studying happiness has altered in past years is that I changed from a focus on investigating why some people are happier than others – that is, comparing happy and unhappy people – to studying how and why we can increase happiness. In the earlier years, in interviews with journalists, I would invariably be asked, “So what do your findings mean for our readers? What can they do to be happier?” And I would always say, “I don’t know,” or “My research really can’t address that question.” After some time, I realized that my research could address that question, and I started thinking about how to accomplish that.
Conflicting points of view are common in the sciences and social sciences – markedly different schools of thought or conclusions on the same subject. Is this true in your discipline? If so, can you sketch in the opposing perspective and briefly state why you disagree? Have you met with significant resistance from colleagues as you have pursued your study of happiness?
I have not met with significant resistance from colleagues. In my mind, the biggest tension in my specific field is between its applied (or practical) and basic science branches. That is, at what point do we (as scientists) feel comfortable taking our findings from our basic laboratory and field studies – for instance, from double-blind placebo-controlled studies that my colleagues and I have done examining how practicing particular strategies can make people happier over time – and applying them to the wider public. As one example, a few years ago I was approached by a representative of the Compton School District about conducting a major happiness intervention in their elementary and middle schools. I declined, feeling that we as scientists did not yet know enough about how well our interventions would work in the “real world” to consume an extraordinary amount of time and resources on the behalf of schools. Today, I think we are closer to being ready to do this. On the other hand, some of my colleagues feel that a book like mine, which makes recommendations to readers on how they can become personally happier in their lives, is a bit premature, as the science hasn’t yet crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s. However, if researchers always waited until they knew everything there is to know about a topic before disseminating their findings to the public, then a great deal of discoveries and innovation would be lost to the world. The problem is that there will always be practitioners (such as self-help gurus and life coaches) who will not wait for the research findings to arrive and thus end up offering and popularizing advice that’s not based in solid science. So, it’s better that we disseminate our findings sooner – and ideally in a readable, accessible way – rather than later.
For readers who want to delve more deeply into this subject or pursue it more technically, what books would you recommend? Which ones would you steer them away from?
The How of Happiness has tons of footnotes, which provide the references for most of the “technical” findings that I mention. In psychology, like in most scientific fields, the vast majority of new discoveries are published in scholarly journals rather than in books. So I would urge highly motivated and interested readers to look up my footnotes. In addition, I have written a sample “syllabus” (see link on www.thehowofhappiness.com), which lists the most important academic papers that are relevant to each chapter. This syllabus is intended for teachers and instructors of courses on the subject of happiness, as well as for reading groups and individuals who simply want to learn more.
The section on forgiveness was especially powerful and eye-opening. You mention that forgiving can be the hardest strategy to carry out – why should this be so? Is forgiveness also one of the most direct paths to happiness? In the context of forgiveness, could you expand a bit on how you feel about the story of Amy Biehl and her parents? Do you see the parents’ extraordinary act of forgiveness as a goal for the rest of us to live up to – or as an inspirational act beyond most of our capacities?
In my classes, when I’ve had students try several different strategies, they always find forgiveness to be the hardest. The reason, I think, is that this exercise requires overcoming strong negative emotions, as well as the motivation to forgive. (Many people do not believe that certain individuals or acts should be forgiven, and they may be wise not to choose this strategy.) Forgiving is very possible, however, but it may require a great deal more effort and time than some of the other happiness activities.
The story of Amy Biehl, and her parents, has always been powerful and memorable for me, as she was a student at Stanford at the same time that I was, and news of her death hit some people that I knew very, very hard. Her parents’ depth of forgiveness, and her mother’s actions of the subsequent years, is perhaps unfathomable to most people. I definitely see her parents as role models we may try to aspire to, not to emulate.
You mention your Russian roots. Do you think there is a significant difference in the styles of happiness and how happiness manifests itself in the US and Russia? To step back even further, to what extent do you think happiness is universal – to what extent socially or culturally determined? Would this book look very different if written for a Russian, Chinese or South American audience?
My family emigrated from Russia to the United States when I was 9 years old, and one of my earliest memories is observing people strolling down the street in Boston looking cheerful, smiling, and saying hello as we passed by. It occurred to me that Americans must be happier than Russians, who appear pretty dour-faced and sullen walking about. Indeed, one of the most striking cultural differences immediately evident to first-time visitors to a new country is in the ways that the locals express (or fail to express) happiness. There’s actually more to such variations than meets the eye. Whereas Russians may appear melancholy relative to Americans in public, the difference seems to reverse when one observes a raucous dinner party inside a Moscow home. Some 20 years later, I decided to study the question of cultural differences myself by traveling to Russia and doing research there. I found that, as I suspected, due to cultural norms rooted in their history and religion, Russians did report being significantly less happy than Americans. However, the difference only held for the older generation. The young people – those of the worldwide media and internet generation – were very similar in their beliefs and pursuit of happiness to their U.S. counterparts.
The bottom line is that I believe that the desire for happiness is universal. Members of different cultural groups may define happiness in different ways (i.e., as involving fun vs. romantic love vs. spiritual salvation, as entailing material success vs. a virtuous life, etc.). They may express happiness in different ways – through throwing themselves energetically into a lifelong goal, through smiling and laughter, or through quiet contemplation. And they may pursue happiness in different ways – for example, by trying to appreciate what they have or by devoting themselves to family life or by working to attain closeness to God. But, in the end, they all seek happiness in their own way. In every nation probed by survey researchers, respondents have placed happiness at the top of their most significant life goals. And even during the relatively rare instances in which some individuals profess not to desire happiness for themselves, almost all concede that they wish their children to be happy. In short, although the ways that happiness is defined, understood, coveted, expressed, shared, and pursued may slightly differ in different nations, the yearning for a flourishing, happy life and many of the ingredients for such a life appear to be universal. As a bicultural and bilingual person – and a close observer of cultural difference in general – I am persuaded that every reader of every stripe can find something befitting and becoming among the dozen happiness-enhancing activities that I describe within my book.
You have included a number of gripping stories from rock stars, people involved with “extreme make-overs,” those who have suffered terrible losses yet still experience happiness. How did you find these stories? Which stories speak most eloquently to you and why?
Many of the stories come from people I’ve met – either in my personal life or through my work and media experiences – and a few are actually amalgamations of different people, including those interviewed in my lab. I especially resonate with the stories of people who appear to have it all– or have had it all and lost it – but recognize that their happiness doesn’t come from external things.
Some of the findings you describe are surprising, even unsettling – for example, that the happiness boost of marriage lasts only about 2 years. Have you gotten negative reactions from audiences, colleagues, students, even friends and family for these? How do you deal with criticism, attack?
People are indeed often surprised – sometimes astonished – at some of the findings, but they almost never react negatively. The few unfriendly reactions I have received are from people who maintain that the research is worthless because everything my colleagues and I have found has already been described in the bible. My answer has always been that all of us are bombarded with numerous prescriptions for happiness – not just from religious teachings, but from our grandmothers, uncles, blogs, and television shows. Some of the advice is questionable and some is even contradictory. For these reasons, it is very important to establish that how-to-be-happy recommendations are supported by solid empirical results. Why? Because scientific 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.
Which happiness activities work best for you? Do you have any personal anecdotes about finding and using the activities you describe here? Anything surprising, humorous, embarrassing that happened to you as you “test drove” the exercises you describe in the book?
I recall one day that I had spent hours writing about the “Will it matter in a year?” strategy (for the section in my book on how to shake off ruminations), and I became very excited about trying this technique. So, I started telling my husband, Pete, what a great strategy this is and how well it works. Just when I finished talking, my daughter, who was then 7, walked in and her hair was completely and utterly entangled with gum. I just lost it! I started yelling at her: “How could you do such a thing?! That was so foolish!”, etc. And Pete just started laughing. “What were you just telling me? Will this matter in a year?” “But it will matter in a year!” I cried. “I’m going to have to cut her hair off and it’s still going to be short a whole year later!”
Though that was clearly not an opportunity that I took to use the “Will it matter in a year?” strategy, I still practice it quite often and find it extremely effective.
Another surprising revelation of the book is that trauma or stress can actually enhance the quality of life. Do you care to share any personal situations in which you have benefited from adversity?
I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced real tragedy, but there have certainly been very trying times. I’ve come out of those experiences with a realization that I’m a strong person and that I can endure a lot. This recognition has helped me tremendously when the next stress or challenge comes along. I have also been able to use past ordeals as a contrast with a happier present (e.g., “I’m so happy and relieved that I don’t have to worry about X anymore”), and, to use that old cliché, to count my blessings.
Your section on religion and happiness is powerful and persuasive. And yet you are careful to point out elsewhere in the book that your findings are grounded in scientific rationalism. Do you have any problem in reconciling religion and science, either personally or professionally? Could you delve more deeply into what has shaped your thinking in this area?
Religion is a tough subject for a scientist to wrap her head around because many people believe that religion and science do not mix – that faith and spirituality belong on one level of analysis or category of experience, and that science is on an entirely different level or category. The approach I take in the book, however, is not to empirically establish the validity of religious beliefs, but to consider whether being spiritual or religious is associated with positive outcomes, like happiness and health. This turns out to be a very tractable scientific question, the answer to which is “yes.”
In the Afterword you describe yourself as “the ultimate reluctant subject” and recount the “surprising power” of the recommendations in your book. This is fascinating coming from someone who has studied and written about this subject in such depth and detail. Tell us more about where your reluctance comes from. Is it a matter of shyness, desire to maintain scientific objectivity, busyness, or something else? Have you continued doing the exercises and following your own advice as you advise readers to do? If so, how has your life continued to change?
Much of my reluctance has come from the seeming “hokeyness” of the strategies that I describe. I’ve never been the type of person to read inspirational quotes or browse through the self-help section or try counting my blessings. I even resisted for a long time doing research on how happiness can be increased, for fear that it would be too practical or applied. But after thinking about it for a couple years, I realized that the question of how and why people can become happier is a fascinating basic scientific question in itself. I also came to see that the supposed hokey strategies can be tested systematically in the laboratory for their efficacy. Now I know that practicing certain happiness activities – and practicing them in specific optimal ways – is highly effective and has the potential to change people’s lives. Hearing from people who have experienced the power of the strategies has also probably changed my perspective. I still am not a fan of inspirational quotes or most self-help books, but I do try to swallow my own medicine and practice a few of the strategies in my daily life.
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