The How of Happiness

sonja - the how of happiness

Dr. Cathy Greenberg (my co-host): This week’s  show features Sonja Lyubomirsky and we are very happy to have her with us. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Her honors include a Faculty of the Year Award, Faculty Mentor of the Year Award, A Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, and a $1M grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

Her book, The How of Happiness was released in 2008 and has been translated into seventeen languages.

Sonja is a specialist on the science of happiness. She’s not only a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, but she is also a Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, which is also where she got her PhD in Social Personality Psychology from Stanford University as well.

Lyubomirsky currently teaches courses in Social Psychology and Positive Psychology and also serves as a graduate advisor. She is an associate editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology with co-editor, Ken Sheldon. Sonja’s research has been written up in 100’s of magazine and newspaper articles. She has appeared in multiple TV shows, radio shows, and featured documentaries around the world and lectures widely to a variety of audiences.

We are thrilled to have you, welcome to the show.

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: I’m so happy to be here.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Yay. We want you to be happy, of course. If you are not, how are you going to help others, right?

We always start our show with one key question and that is; who have been the most influential people or thinkers in your life and career and how have they shaped your thinking?

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Well, I guess I would have to start, there are lots of people I could name, with my two mentors in graduate school. Mentors are really important to people, as you know. There was Susan Nolen-Hoeksema who studies rumination or over-thinking. She is the author of a book called, Women Who Think Too Much, which is really a great book about people who have problems with over-thinking things.

Then my other mentor is Lee Ross, who is actually an expert on conflict and negotiation which doesn’t have much to do with happiness. He’s really taught me how to think, how to be a great scientist, how to ask great questions and we have really wonderful conversations to this day.

I read a lot too, so I am influenced a great deal by all kinds of novelists, philosophers; I’m just a huge reader.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I believe you are also the mother of a daughter?

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: I have two kids. I have a seven-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. They are the happiness of my life; my husband too.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well that’s wonderful, and I’m sure they are influencing your thinking all of the time. Let me ask you; how did you get the idea to focus on the science of happiness and to write this fabulous book, The How of Happiness?

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Thank you. Well, you know, the first day of graduate school, when I came to Stanford, I started talking to my mentor, Lee Ross, and we started talking about these questions, like, what is happiness; what are the secrets to happiness, and back then this was over 20 years ago. Very few people were doing research on happiness. It was considered a fuzzy, kind of unscientific topic, or course lots of people write about it.

So, we started doing some research on it. People kept urging me to write a book about my work. I just thought, I’m not ready yet, I don’t know enough. Then about 10-15 years later, I just thought, now there is enough research, now there any number of neuroscientists, sociologists, economists, psychologists that are studying happiness from all different perspectives, there’s enough research out there to write a book about it. I wanted to write a book that was accessible, like a self-help book, but that was all based on the empirical research.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: We are very glad that you did that. I know that behind all of this, obviously, for 20 years prior to writing the book, you must have had a great love for research and teaching. So, how did you turn this passion, this love for research and teaching, into such a terrific topic?

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: I think a lot of it was luck That I started asking these questions about what is happiness and why are some people happier than others. So there is a little bit of serendipity there. Then of course when you are working on something that interests you, you are as you say passionate about it, you work harder, you are more likely to succeed, so I kept working on it. If I had started with a topic that was less interesting I may not have been here, and certainly may not have written a book about it.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now you list 225 studies on the benefits of happiness in your book. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how you went about looking at these studies and finding them, and where maybe they came from.

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Sure, that’s a great question. When I talk about happiness, some people think or their reaction is that happiness is something that is very hedonistic. It’s about pleasure and it’s very individualistic, maybe almost a selfish goal to have; to be happy. I never really agreed with that. I thought being happy person is as much a good thing for yourself and also good for others.

So, my colleagues and I decided to investigate the benefits of happiness. Once you are a happy person or once you work on being happier, what kind of good things come to you? What kinds of good things accrue to you? So we saw almost 225 studies from all over the different journals regarding health, work and relationships. What we found is that happier people, people who experience more positive emotions are more successful at work, they make more money, they are more creative, they are physically healthier, they are better leaders and negotiators, they have more social support, they are more likely to get married because if you are happier today you are more likely to find a marriage partner. You are more likely to get help from your coworkers. You are more other-centered. So happy people are not more selfish or self-centered as I think some people think. They are actually more philanthropic, they are more likely to help others.

All this work suggests that becoming a happier person is a really good thing not just because it feels good, but because it has all of these benefits.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I have to tell the audience, if they go to find your book, it’s a very appetizing book. There’s a wonderful pie on the cover. You have a little story about that; the pie, I think?

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: The pie stands in for a pie chart because my theory, and Ken Sheldon is my collaborator on this, has to do with what sort of determines happiness and we wrote the theory in the form of a pie chart, and the pie represents that.

The question that we ask is, what are the most important factors or determinates of happiness? The answer, which comes from lots and lots of studies, is that about half or 50% of that comes from genetics, about 10% comes from your life circumstances. I should say these numbers shouldn’t be taken too seriously, they are approximations. Then about 40% of individual differences in happiness can be explained by what we do; how we act, how we behave, how we think. So I have a 40% sort of slice cut out of the pie that represents that that is the part of happiness that we can control.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well this set point is something that we should get into. We were talking about the 40/10 rule. If we compare that to the data that I’m hearing now over the airwaves, if you will on positive psychology, that we might be actually shifting from a 50/50 to an 80/20. What do you think about that? Eighty percent being genetically determined and 20% being circumstantial or what we might call, intentional activity.

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: Well, I guess we talk about where those numbers come from. The numbers that explain which part of individual differences in happiness are explained by genes, comes from research with twins, it’s a field called Behavioral Genetics. What researchers do is that the compare the happiness levels of identical twins to the similarity and happiness levels of fraternal twins. We know identical twin share 100% of their DNA and fraternal twins share 50%. What they find is that identical twins are much more similar in their happiness than are fraternal twins. When you look at all of these studies together, by far the most common result is the inheritability of happiness is about 50%. I would very much question or disagree that it’s 80%. Eighty or ninety is really what you get for something like height. Happiness is not very close to something like height and sort of how genetic rooted it is.

To learn more about the How of Happiness, you can listen to the complete interview, above.


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