Sonja Lyubomirsky: Happiness Research

Psychoanalysts famously charted the origins of mental pathology. Cognitive psychologists take a pragmatic, manualized approach to treatment. But what about once pathology has been tamed, or minimized? Is there anything more? Sonya Lyubomirsky has been busy researching the answer to this question. She belongs to the positive psychology movement, a group which, rather than focussing on pathology (a worthwhile pursuit), is interested in what makes certain people happier than others.

Her approach is not glib. She is a real researcher who tests assumptions. One finding is particularly interesting. She found that 50 percent of our happiness is based on our genetics, 10 percent on circumstance, and 40 percent on actions we take ourselves. The genetics part is not surprising. That circumstance is contributes only 10 percent to our happiness is a bit of an eyebrow raiser. But that 40 percent of happiness hangs on our own actions is quite empowering, if you think about it.

Dr. Lyubomirsky is smart enough to caution that these numbers are not absolutes. They vary from person to person. But this ratio generally holds for most.

The next obvious question – actions can I cram into that 40 percent that will increase my happiness. Well, fortunately for us she supplies a list — but with some caveats. Some practices will be more useful for some people than others. There is an importance of “fit.” In other words, if you enjoy a practice then go for it. If you don’t enjoy a practice, then abandon it. What works for what people can hinge on culture. Depressed people found expressing gratitude to be – more depressing. They tended to end up criticizing themselves for not being grateful enough. So, do what works. If it doesn’t work, toss it.

Here are some of the practices she maps out:

  • practicing gratitude and positive thinking
  • investing in social connections
  • managing stress, hardship, and trauma
  • living to the present
  • committing to goals
  • taking care of the body and soul

Dr. Lyubomirsky has a number of books including The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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