Do Happiness Interventions Really Work?

Interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky

Do you long to be happier? From the science of happiness to self-help books there seems to be no-end of suggestions of how to be happier. But does any of it really work long-term?

It was my childhood dream to grow up and finally be happy. So you can imagine my disappointment when despite my best efforts of racking up career achievements, building a fort of financial security and creating a loving community of family and friends, I still wasn’t consistently happy.

Don’t get me wrong there were many moments of real joy, contentment and gratitude on my journey. It just never seemed to last very long.

So is it really possible to be happier?

“It’s easy to believe that you’re either born with happiness or not, or life has dealt you happy circumstances or not,” explained Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, from the University of California and author of the best-selling The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness when I interviewed her recently. “But my research over the last twenty-five years has found that if you want to be happier you can be happier, no matter what your circumstances.”

Whilst skeptics have long argued that people’s happiness levels are genetically determined and cannot be substantively changed, a 17 year longitudinal study found that 24% of participants showed substantive changes in their happiness over time. Sonja suggests that while individual differences in biology and circumstances combine to explain part of the happiness puzzle, these changes are also explained in part by the deliberate ways that people choose to think and behave in their daily lives.

Feeling happier has been found to have many advantages. A meta-analysis by Sonja and her colleagues of 225 studies found an abundance of evidence indicating that happiness is a precursor or source of such positive outcomes as having a happy marriage and successful career, living longer, earning more money, and boasting more friends. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that happiness may not only be a consequence of these successes in life, but also a cause.

The good news is that there is a growing body of positive activity interventions that have been scientifically found to make you happier. From writing letters of gratitude, counting your blessings, practicing optimism, performing acts of kindness, using your strengths in a new way, and meditating on positive feelings towards yourself and others. Sonja suggests that in particular interventions to improve the quality of your social relationships are really critical for your happiness.

Of course a short happiness intervention practiced for a couple of days or even a couple of weeks is unlikely to fuel endless amounts of happiness. Just like eating one piece of broccoli isn’t going to suddenly make you healthy, or going for one run instantly makes you fit, to have a lasting effect intentionality and effort toward specifically designed happiness-increasing strategies are major contributors to their efficacy.

“While there are lots of benefits to being happier and we continue to discover new positive activity interventions and the mechanisms likely to make them more effective, it’s also important to be aware that focusing on happiness can have its pitfalls,” cautions Sonja.

For example, studies have found that focusing too much on your happiness, can make you less happy as reality often falls short of your expectations. There are also situations where feeling happy could impair the way you show up in your relationships or at work – no one wants an overly optimistic pilot trying to land their plane. And of course happiness can’t be forced on people, you need a sense of autonomy and control in how, when and why you choose to be happy.

In fact, Sonja suggests that the goal for happiness-increasing strategies should not be to eliminate negative emotions altogether, but instead to serve as “daily emotional

maintenance” for most people.

So how can you truly improve your happiness?

Sonja shares three principles to get the most from activities designed to increase your happiness:

· Finding the right activity fit – while there’s a multitude of positive interventions that have been found to improve people’s happiness, they won’t necessary all be right for you. For example, highly extraverted people may benefit more from positive activities that encourage them to interact with other people, and religious people may benefit more from activities with a spiritual component. The greatest gains in happiness will emerge from practicing positive activities when the specific intervention format matches your individual preferences and characteristics.

Try to choose the happiness activities that feel enjoyable and interesting, that you can value and identify with, and make sense for your situation, your resources and your lifestyle. You’ll also find it helpful to experiment with the right dosage, variety and social support to make it easy to stick with your happiness strategy. Sonja suggests thinking of it like dieting or exercise, there’s a lot of different approaches you could choose, some work for you and others may not, so it’s about finding the ones that match who you are as an individual.

· Not waiting to be happy when – it’s easy to think that you’ll be happy when you change something in your external circumstances – it could be your job, where you live, more money, or a relationship. However Sonja has found that life’s circumstances account for a relatively small part of your happiness, so no matter how positive or spectacular the changes you make may be, while they might make you feel better in the short-term, ultimately they tend to have little impact on your long-term wellbeing.

Instead of trying to change your circumstance, look for ways you can change your emotions, thoughts and actions to your basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy and connection. For example, looking for whatever you are grateful for in your current workplace, no matter how small, has been found to help you feel more engaged, more connected to others, and more energetic.

· Be aware of hedonic adaptation – even if changing your job, moving to an exciting new city or even winning lottery may bring you wonderful happiness at first, research has found that this rarely lasts. Scientists call this phenomenon “hedonic adaptation” and it explains why both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat abate with time for you.

What’s particularly fascinating about this phenomenon, however, is that it’s most pronounced with respect to your happiest experiences due to the creeping normalcy and the constant ramping up of expectations that causes you to seek out more, more and more. While the rate at which we adapt to happiness seems to vary between people and situations, there can be no doubt that our brains thrive on novelty which is why happiness and wellbeing should never be the destination but the journey.

Sonja has found that it is possible to train your brain to overcome, forestall or at least slow down hedonic adaptation by practicing gratitude consistently, sprinkling a good dose of novelty across your wellbeing approaches, being clear on why happiness activities are important even when they get a little boring and avoiding social comparison that cause you to always want more, more and more.

What activities could you invest in to be a little happier?

This interview was produced with the support of the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.