I'm currently reading The How of Happiness - A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky.
This will be a book review mixed with my takeaways, summaries, and my own experiences and reflections. I'll expand on this post whenever I finish another part of the book and implement it into my life.
This sets the scene by delving into the science behind happiness.
1. Is it possible to become happier?
The short answer is yes. And like anything worthwhile, it requires some work on our part. But first, we need to, once and for all, accept that happiness is not an object to be chased or discovered. It's not a pursuit of happiness but more so a creation of happiness. Constructing happiness for ourselves is in our own hands.
The tricky thing is that we are often completely wrong about what will actually bring us fulfilment. We work hard to make things happen that, in the end, don't make us happy, leaving us frustrated and confused.
Does money make us happy? Yes! But ... "we think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time"
What really determines happiness? 50% of our happiness comes from our "set point" which is genetically determined. In other words, you're born with it and can't change it. It's your baseline happiness.
10% of our happiness is determined by our circumstances and situation. That includes our social status, health, how we look, where we live, if we're married or not, etc. Initially, you'd think that these circumstances would count a huge deal towards how happy we are ... but they are not!
The remaining 40% of our happiness is the critical part that we can actively influence on a daily basis - our behaviour and thoughts.
Takeaway: Yes, you can actively work towards being happier. You can influence as much as 40% of your happiness by behaving the right way and thinking the right things on a daily basis.
2. How happy are you and why?
"Happiness is like obscenity: We can't define it, but we know it when we see it."
To determine how happy you are, the author offers a subjective happiness scale. You can take the test here.
We are often wrong about why we are happy and what will make us happy. But we can't really be blamed for that. Society has taught us certain myth about happiness that are still surviving.
Myth #1: Happiness must be "found"
Happiness is not "out there", it's rather inside of us. It's a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching the world around us. That's why it's possible to choose to be happy. It's in your own hands.
Myth #2: Happiness lies in changing our circumstances
In the previous chapter, we already learned that our circumstances only account for around 10% of our happiness. So, the whole "I'll be happy, when ____!" clearly won't work. Also, we might remember a really happy time in our life (for example the college years) and believe that we won't be able to recreate the same circumstances that brought that happiness. But, it's really still within us.
Myth #3: You either have it or you don't
We aren't born happy or unhappy. We can learn to overcome our genetic programming.
Materialism leads to unhappiness. Department stores, Amazon, basically any business that sells a product, wants us to believe that we will be much happier as soon as we add this or that new thing into our lives. But that's not how it works. There's plenty of evidence that more money doesn't lead to more happiness, but often leads to more problems.
Our appearance doesn't have an effect on our happiness either. Plastic surgery makes people happier for a little bit, but not for long.
Hedonic adaptation: Trying to be happy by changing our life circumstances will not work. We're just too good at getting used to new situations, no matter if they are positive or negative. That works in our advantage when we are faced with adversity, e.g. the loss of a loved one or diagnosed with an illness. After a short period of adjustment, our happiness level magically returns to its natural set point.
So, what can we do to be happier? Happy people don't just sit around being happy. They make things happen for themselves. There's intentional action involved in pursuing happiness.
Takeaway: Happiness is not a "thing" to be found. It has to be pursued through action, changing your thoughts, and setting goals for yourself. Changing your life circumstances (where you live, money, your appearance, etc.) won't work to create happiness. You'd get used to the new situation too quickly for it to create lasting happiness.
3. How to find happiness activities that fit your interests, values, and needs
Suppose you want to lose weight and get fit. You can achieve that following so many different programs (keto diet, intermittent fasting, counting calories, weight watchers, etc.) The same goes for happiness. You have to find your own unique strategies to be happier. Half the battle will be already won when you've identified those.
There are 3 ways a strategy can fit:
Fit with the source of your unhappiness - Strategies that directly address and alleviate your pain.
Fit with your strengths - Strategies that play to your strengths will be easier to implement and sustain.
Fit with your lifestyle - Strategies that can be easily integrated into your current life.
To find out which strategies will work best for you, the author has designed a Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic. You can take the test easily online. It will present you with 12 strategies and in the end you'll have a short list of four activities that you should try out first. Obviously, you don't have to constrain yourself to these, but they are a good starting point.
Here's a quick overview of all 12 strategies:
1. Expressing Gratitude
2. Cultivating optimism
3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
4. Practicing random acts of kindness
5. Nurturing relationships
6. Developing strategies for coping
7. Learning to forgive
8. Doing more activities that truly engage you
9. Savoring life’s joys
10. Committing to your goals
11. Practicing religion and spirituality
12. Taking care of your body
The second part of the book dives into each strategy. But before you start working on increasing your happiness, it's recommended that you measure it first. Otherwise, how would you know that you're really improving? When you're trying to lose weight, you step on the scale regularly to measure your progress. You can do the same for your happiness.
The book recommends the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. After answering 29 questions, you'll receive a score between 1 (unhappy) and 6 (very happy). Once you've determined your starting point, measure your happiness on a regular basis to see your progress.
My starting point turned out to be 5.3 ... which is actually pretty high. So, I was wondering for a second why I'm even reading this book. But you can always be happier, right?
Happiness Activity No. 1: Expressing gratitude
The book presents a plethora of research to demonstrate how powerful expressing gratitude can be for increasing happiness. Here's why:
- When you're being grateful, you savour positive live experiences.
- It bolsters your self-worth and confidence because you realise how much you've already accomplished.
- It helps you cope with stress or trauma.
- It encourages moral behaviour as you'll be more likely to help others when you feel gratitude.
- It helps strengthen your social bonds and relationships.
- You'll be less likely to compare yourself to others and be envious.
- You can't be grateful and angry/bitter/greedy/etc. at the same time. It diminishes negative emotions.
- It thwarts hedonic adaptation (getting used to the positive things in your life too quickly).
There are many ways to express gratitude. Here are a few that could work for you:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Writing about what you're grateful for once a week seems to be the most effective (writing daily can get too repetitive).
- Identify ungrateful thoughts every day and replace them with more grateful ones.
- Identify one thing each day that you usually take for granted and appreciate it.
- Directly express your gratitude to someone through a face-to-face conversation, an email, a phone call, or an old-fashioned letter.
Happiness Activity No. 2: Cultivating Optimism
This is basically about looking at the bright side of life and feeling good about your future. Here's why it makes you happy:
- Being optimistic about your future and what you can achieve gives you confidence. You'll actually invest effort into working towards your goals - the self-fulling prophecy
- Optimistic thoughts help you cope with stress and hardship.
- They will help to keep you in a positive mood and boost your morale.
Try one of these exercises to cultivate optimism:
- Keep a best possible self diary in which you write how your life will look like in 5, 10, 20 years when everything has gone the best as it could.
- Break down your life goals into smaller subgoals to identify the exact steps you can take.
- Identify any pessimistic thoughts and replace them with a more favourable point of view.
The more you "practice" positive thinking, the more natural and ingrained it will become.
"Optimism is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. the world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground." - Lee Ross
Happiness Activity No. 3: Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
Overthinking is my arch-enemy. Our brain leads us to believe that we are getting some kind of insight into ourselves or the problem by turning it over again and again and again. That's rarely the case. What we gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective. When we ruminate while we're in a depressive mood, it's even worse. We end up feeling powerless and simply sad.
Social comparison doesn't fair much better. No matter how successful, wealthy, or fortunate you are, there will always be someone to best us.
Here's a 3-step approach to stop overthinking and social comparison:
- Break free - You need to stop any overthinking or comparison immediately. Distract yourself with activities that take your mind away and that make you happy. You can also yell "Stop!" (in your mind or out loud - why not). Use your brain power to think about something else. You can also dedicate a specific time each day when you're allowed to ruminate, or write down your thoughts in a journal to get them out of your head.
- Act to solve problems - Take a small step to actually solve the real problem that's behind your overthinking. Don't wait for someone else to help you. You have to do it.
- Avoid future traps - Write down a list of situations that trigger your overthinking. Avoid those.
It also helps to think about the bigger picture. Ask yourself: Will this matter in a year ... or on your deathbed? Likely, the answer will be no.