The How of Happiness: An interview with Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky

Monday, March 20, is the International Day of Happiness. Because happiness confers many health benefits on heart, digestion, the immune system, and skin, we thought it was an excellent time to interview Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading experts on the science of happiness.

Dr. Lyubomirsky is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Originally from Russia, she received her A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from Stanford University. She currently teaches courses in social psychology and positive psychology and serves as the Department of Psychology’s Vice Chair. Her teaching and mentoring of students have been recognized with the Faculty of the Year Award (twice) and the Faculty Mentor of the Year Award.

Her work has won many awards, including a million-dollar grant (with Ken Sheldon) from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness. Her research has been written up in hundreds of magazines and newspapers and she has appeared in multiple TV shows, radio shows, and feature documentaries in North America, South America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Her best-selling The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press) is now translated and published in 23 countries, and The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does (Penguin Press) is translated (or will be) in 16 countries.

Her work has focused on developing a science of human happiness by exploring three critical questions:

1) What makes people happy?
2) Is happiness a good thing?
3) How can we make people happier still?

Dr. Lyubomirsky was kind enough to speak with us via Zoom for this blog post.

Dr. Murad: In The How of Happiness you point out that most of us aren’t flourishing. “Nationally representative samples of U.S. adults indicate that slightly more than half of us (54%) lack great enthusiasm for life and are not actively and productively engaged with the world.” I have noticed the same thing in my own practice since the widespread availability of cell phones, contributing to what I call Cultural Stress, the stress of modern living. Why do YOU think Americans aren’t flourishing?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Unfortunately, those numbers might have gotten worse.

Dr. Murad: Since the pandemic, probably?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Yes, because of COVID, and because of more disconnection and loneliness overall. I’ve been doing research on happiness for more than 30 years, and the conclusion of all the research is that connection, social connection, is the key to happiness. It can be many different kinds of connection: to your spouse, your children, friends, even just neighbors, acquaintances, or it could even be to pets or to God. But connection is key, and our sense of connection seems to be getting smaller. Loneliness is increasing. That’s maybe partly because of COVID and remote work and changing social norms. Digital media, social media, have contributed to it because we’re spending more time on devices than actually face-to-face in person with people. That’s my best guess as to why more of us aren’t flourishing.

Dr. Murad: I agree with you. Loneliness is horrible, and it seems to be worst in my patients who are elderly. People don’t come to see them. They feel that they’re not as attractive; they don’t have as much to offer; they’re not as much fun. But elderly people aren’t the only ones who are suffering. You see it also to the extreme in young people–girls especially, who are trying to cut themselves, struggling with thoughts of suicide, and so on. Loneliness really is a horrible condition. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you really delve into it and understand what’s happening you see how damaging it is. It’s one of the primary effects of Cultural Stress.

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Thank you. You make some really great points that are empirically supported. One is that, yes, the two populations that seem to be most affected by this loneliness epidemic are the young people and older people. Young people because the evidence indicates that ‘tweens and teens, especially girls, are being harmed by social media and by smartphone use. The statistics about their suicidality and self-harm and reports of anxiety depression are very telling. I recently dropped my daughter off at a women’s college where we heard a presentation about mental health. Someone asked, “What’s the percent of these young women who are on medication for anxiety or depression?” And the answer was, “About a third.” We were shocked. These are bright, “successful” young women and one in three are on prescription medication for their mental health. You can imagine how many more are struggling; they just aren’t being treated pharmaceutically. And then older people who, ironically I think, care more about social connection and yet, as you know, are increasingly isolated and disconnected. I’m particularly worried about older people who are living in rural areas or in other places where reduced mobility might make it more difficult for them to see others. It’s a big problem.

Dr. Murad: And with families spreading all over the place, the grandparents are often left stranded. They can’t travel anymore. And their kids and grandkids move away, which is heartbreaking.

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Exactly. In our field, we call it residential mobility. And the US is very, very high in residential mobility.  We move for partners, jobs, a lower cost of living, lots of reasons. But Dr. Murad, you made a really great point about the word “loneliness.” It makes me think of diabetes, which, like loneliness is a really, really awful condition. Lots of people die from it, but it doesn’t sound as bad as cancer, for example, because lots of people also live with it. I think loneliness is similar in that it’s really much more awful than it sounds.

One thing that I’m studying is how people can be lonely even when they’re around people. Some of it has to do with feeling that you’re not really being seen and heard. Other people really don’t understand you. So then I try to understand how we can help people feel understood. Because if you feel like no one really understands you and what you’re going through, then you’ll be lonely even when you’re surrounded by friends and family.

Dr. Murad: Yes, you’re right about diabetes. Probably a good 25 to 50 percent of patients who are in the hospital for another reason have diabetes as well. And also, regarding the elderly, they often speak almost a different language. They’re not attuned to the cultural references, like TikTok, or videos, or celebrities, or other cultural trends that everybody else is talking about. Which makes it more difficult for them to communicate even when they are with other people.

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Right. So the question is, how can we find ways that we could communicate across differences, whether they’re age or ethnicities or just background experiences. It’s funny, my nine-year-old was informing me that there are all these TikToks with older women. It’s apparently a bit of a trend that kids are watching them and enjoying them. That made me feel optimistic, but not older person is going to be filming themselves and posting to TikTok. I also love programs where, for example, older people help out at, say, nursery schools or daycare centers, which always need more help, and which give older people a sense of connection, usefulness, and purpose. I mean, I would love to hold babies for a couple of hours a week.

I’ve also done a lot of research on how performing acts of kindness can make people happier. So one answer to loneliness among older people is not just to shower them with attention, but to encourage them to help others, to volunteer, to take up some kind of activity where they’re feeling competent and efficacious at that whatever they’re doing. That might reduce loneliness, as well as boost other positive feelings.

Dr. Murad: Those are great suggestions. And, as a doctor, I can say that reducing loneliness and feeling a sense of purpose also boost feelings of worthiness, and that these positive emotions all have health benefits.

Your books are packed with other helpful suggestions, as well. In your second book, you talk about The Myths of Happiness. Can you tell us about some of the most common myths we hold regarding happiness–about money, relationships, beauty, success?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Sure. The way to put it most broadly is that a lot of us tell ourselves that we’ll be happy when XYZ happens. When I get the job I want, get married, have a child, buy a house, have X amount of money, retire…THEN I’ll be happy. And it turns out that those things do make us happy, for a while, but not as intensely or as long as people think they will.

That’s because we tend to adapt to our circumstances. It’s called “hedonic adaptation.” Once we move into the bigger house, or get the nicer car, or even when we get married, we tend to adapt to that state as our new normal. Then we tend to want even more in order to feel the same level of happiness. So, my recommendation is not to count on changing your life circumstances as the secret to happiness. If you’re living in poverty, if you’re in an abusive relationship, if you’re in a war zone, obviously improving those circumstances will make people happier. But if you already have your basic needs met, then having even more of what you want will make you happier, but probably not for very long. And so the kind of solution you’re looking for, which, again, may sound like a cliché, is that happiness really does come from within. Some people find a way to be happy in all kinds of circumstances, so you want to become one of those people.

For example, money does make people happy; it solves a lot of problems. But after a certain point, what matters is how you use the money. If you spend your money on growing as a person, on connecting with others, on having experiences that connect you with other people in your life, if you spend it on helping others, contributing to charity, on making other people happy, then yes, money makes people happy long term. But on its own, money is not a long-term solution. Look at all the dreadfully unhappy and messed-up super-rich people.

Similarly, doing something to improve one’s appearance does make people happier. But here again, they often get used to their new look. They adapt. So the key is to figure out ways to improve ourselves and then not take it for granted. I’ve talked to people who have lost weight and kept it off, who were able to tell me, “That made me happier. And I’m still happy, happier 20 years later.” They found a way to appreciate the accomplishment of losing the weight and kept in touch with being happier about the way they looked and felt. Said another way, the habit of telling yourself that you have to fulfill the next goal in order to be happy is a sure-fire method for keeping yourself perpetually unhappy.

Dr. Murad: So that’s “hedonic adaptation,” an excellent term. Do you have a secret for helping people avoid “hedonic adaptation” and adopt a more realistic strategy for cultivating happiness?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Well, it’s interesting because one of the most obvious conclusions might be to lower your expectations, right? In fact, you’ve probably heard that Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Finland often score as the happiest. One reason might have been because, as one study showed, Danish people have lower expectations.

However, rather than tell people to lower their expectations, I prefer to tell people to practice gratitude and appreciation. When you “count your blessings,” or remember how your life used to be before you got the house, or the job, or the partner, you cultivate feelings of gratitude, which in itself, builds happiness. Another way to prevent, or slow, hedonic adaptation is to add variety, novelty, or surprise to your new state. Let’s say you lose weight, and then you get used to that new level of weight, and it stays the same and you take it for granted. That’s when you build on it by adding experiences that are novel, varied and surprising.  You do things that make you feel more attractive: you dress up, go to parties, spend more time with friends, exercise more. You create experiences that are novel and dynamic, and ideally involve growth and challenge. Because we adapt to things that stay the same. We don’t adapt to circumstances that are continuously changing. So, appreciation, gratitude, and novelty help to guard against hedonic adaptation.

Dr. Murad: Perfect. That’s wonderful. Yes, I do believe in gratitude. Without it, we’re never going to be happy. There will always be something that we should or could have done, or that someone has more of, or whatever. Basing our happiness on what others have is a way to be perpetually unhappy. As you said, happiness lies within.

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Yeah, and research shows that it’s true. We’ve tested gratitude. We’ve randomly assigned some people to writing gratitude letters or to counting their blessings, or thinking about things they’re grateful for over the course of, say, a month, and then we follow them across time. We compare them to a control group that doesn’t have the same assignment. We find that people who express gratitude on a regular basis feel more connected and happier. They even are inspired to be better people. Gratitude has lots of benefits.

Dr. Murad: Many aspects of your research into the science of happiness echo my own patient recommendations, but others are surprising, even to me, such as the study about Botox easing hard-core depression. Will you tell us a little about that one—and one or two of the other most surprising findings you discovered about happiness?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Yes, there was a small study of 10 older women who were clinically depressed and whose depressions had not responded to treatment by either drugs or psychotherapy. They were given Botox injections to their frown lines, and two months later, nine out of the 10 participants were no longer depressed, and the tenth had much improved.

I think the results might be explained by two factors. Seeing frown lines on one’s own face can actually contribute to a negative mood. The “facial feedback” hypothesis suggests that if you look unhappy you start feeling unhappy. And then there’s the social effect. If you’re walking around looking unhappy, people don’t respond to you as positively. When you look more positive, people respond to you more positively.

Dr. Murad: That’s why I often say “The best face lift is a smile.” Are there any other kind of surprising findings about happiness that you’ve discovered? A short list?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Let’s see. I guess one of the most surprising was recent collaboration on a study where people engaged in Zoom conversations with strangers. They would talk about anything they wanted for half an hour. I don’t know how you would feel about that kind of an assignment. I’m an extrovert, but I would still not be sure I’d want to spend half an hour talking to a stranger on video. But it turns out, on average, this assignment had one of the biggest happiness effects we’ve ever seen. On average, people were much happier after having these conversations than before. Simply having a conversation with someone makes people happy! Again, this reinforces the importance of connection. Obviously, sometimes connections can make you unhappy. Our relationships are the source of our biggest sort of sorrows and suffering, in addition to the biggest source of joy, so it goes both ways. But anyway, I was surprised that just having a conversation makes people happy.

Dr. Murad: Especially when you might not expect it—a conversation with a stranger. To me, that’s one of the joys of travel. You can strike up a conversation with someone on the subway, and though you’ll never see them again, you feel like you’ve made a friend.

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I just had that conversation. It was late at night and on a subway in Brooklyn. I was actually a little nervous because it was so late and I was by myself. But I ended up talking to this couple, and it was really a lovely memory. I still remember that.

There’s some new, ongoing research that just talking to strangers makes people happy. A study done among train riders in Chicago, where people are usually doing their own thing—listening to music, reading their phones, or a book—but some were asked to try to talk to the person sitting next to them. The researchers thought they would get resistance, “No, no, no, I want to listen to my music.” But, as it turned out, the effect was really positive. People who were induced to talk to the person sitting next to them on a train felt happier.

Dr. Murad: That’s great. My final question is, what role does adversity play in cultivating long-term happiness?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: Well, mostly, it plays a negative role, of course. Adversity makes people unhappy. But the thing is, we all have adversity in our lives. Every single human has adversity stress, maybe even trauma. But for some people, those experiences might lead to growth so that they end up stronger, and therefore happier, than they were before. Kind of, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That’s not true for everyone, but for a subset of people it happens. Maybe we reexamine our lives and realize what our true priorities are. Maybe we better appreciate who are true friends are. So that after adversity, we actually live a happier life. There’s a famous study of women breast cancer survivors showing that the majority of them actually experienced higher levels of satisfaction and well-being after their breast cancer diagnosis. Again, I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but when the experience makes you stronger and more appreciative, more grateful, that’s a positive. I guess the lesson is that we can try to harness adversity to become stronger. It’s not easy, and not everyone has the resources. But we can all try.

Dr. Murad: Do you think that we all have a lingering level of adversity post-COVID? A sense that life is not as happy as it was before COVID?

Dr. Lyubomirsky: This might be a situation where “the rule of threes” applies. It seems that a third of people really suffered through COVID and may still be suffering for various reasons. Maybe they lost their jobs, their connections, they’re still struggling through long-COVID, they lost a family member, they got divorced. There’s such a thing as the COVID divorce.

Another third did experience that under-the-surface stress or adversity, but they kind of maybe made it through and now are doing better. And will do better, as COVID is still pretty fresh. And then there’s another maybe 20 to 30 percent who have done quite well through COVID, despite COVID. For these people, the response to COVID actually was positive—it led to positive changes in their lives. People have said to me, “COVID is the best thing that ever happened to our family,” because they had a baby and could stay home with their newborn, or their grown kids moved in back with them, or couples got back together. There was such a thing as a COVID divorce, but there was also a COVID marriage. So yeah, so it seems there are individual differences in how people respond, and not surprisingly, because the how of happiness is different for every individual.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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