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How to be Happy in Life: A Scientific Approach

May 15 2012

We do everything in our life with one single goal: to be happy. Everything in our life we do can be narrowed down to this one goal.

Pick a Men’s Health or Cosmo magazine or talk to your friend and you will get plenty of tips and recommendations to be happy. But the question is do they have any scientific evidence? I would say very little.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of the leading researchers in the field of happiness. She has been doing research on happiness for more than 20 years. In this article, I will be writing some of the key points made in her book: The How of Happines.  You will also find a short interview with Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the end of the article.

If you like to be happy, this will probably be the most useful article you will ever read.

Can we be more happy in life?

happiness pie

Happiness Pie: A decade ago most researchers thought that people couldn’t increase their happiness permanently. Now studies show that 50% of difference in people’s happiness can be accounted by your genes. The most interesting finding is that only 10% of the variance is explained by your circumstances (rich or poor, unhealthy or healthy, married or divorced and such). The remaining 40% of the variances lies in our behavior or our intentional activities!

Can material wealth or being beautiful make us more happy?

Though this is hard to believe, whether you drive to work in a lexus or a battered truck, whether you are young or old, or have had wrinkle-removing plastic surgery, your chances of being happy or becoming happier are much the same.

US Study:  In 1940 in United States, one third of homes didn’t have running water, indoor toilets, or bathtub/showers and more than half had no central heating, When asked to rate their overall happiness,, they reported being very happy with an average score of 7.5 out of 10. The typical household today has running water, two or more baths, central heating, not to mention microwave color TVs, DEV players , I-pods’s and computer. Now guess what our average score is? 7.2! That is, all that new gadgets and material wealth could not make us more happier.

Once you have the basic needs of life fulfilled, it seems like that relationship between money and happiness decreases. The richest Americans, those earning more than 10 million dollars annually, report levels of personal happiness only slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ.  We have now a lot of evidence to show that spending money on things which help us grow as a person (taking guitar lessons, learning a new skill) or new experiences (going scuba diving, family reunion)  or spending on small things than just one big item ( like a new car of big flat screen) tend to make us more happier than buying material goods.

Beauty: The number of plastic surgeries to make people look good has gone up to millions. Most people report being satisfied with post surgery physical appearances - but only for a short period of time. Research has shown that good looking people aren’t any more happier. In fact, there is evidence to show that happier people tend to perceive everything about their lives to be more positive and optimistic.

Why do life changes account for so little happiness? The answer is hedonic adaptation: We tend to adapt or our senses tend to adapt to these changes pretty quickly - that is, we get used to relocations, marriage, job changes, a new car and so forth.

How to be more happy in life?

These are the 12 scientific recommendations in the book that you can take advantage of. The book goes much more in-depth and reference a lot of studies.

Practicing Gratitude & Positive thinking| Express gratitude: Or count you blessing. Keep a gratitude journal and jot down 3-5 things which you are thankful for once a week.

It could be just the wonderful coffee you had the other day or just unforgettable moments like graduating college or having a baby. Keep it fresh by how you express your gratitude. You can talk to a friend instead of writing it down in your journal. You can express gratitude directly to the person - by phone, letter or face to face. 

Cultivating Optimism: Basically means looking at the brighter side of things in life. Some of the ways shown in research is the ‘best possible selves’ diary

Sit in a quiet place and take twenty to thirty minutes to think about what you expect your life to be one, five or ten years down the road. Imagine a future where everything has turned out to be how you exactly wanted. Identify barrier thoughts - Write down your barrier or negative thoughts and ask yourself questions like, what else could the experience earn? Can anything good from it? What lessons can I learn and apply in the future?

Avoid Overthinking: Number of studies has shown that ruminating or over-thinking over problems can make worsen sadness, fosters negative thinking, saps motivation and so forth.

Distract yourself by watching a funny move or going to tea with you friend. A second technique is to stop technique where you think or say stop when you start over-thinking or making comparisons. Another strategy is writing down you negative thoughts.

Invest in Social Connections | Practicing Act of Kindness: What research has shown is that practicing kindness is not only good for the recipient but also for the doer. It could be a small deed such as a sincere smile and thank you to a passerby.

The important thing is here to keep varying the act of kindness you do. If you do the same thing, you will adapt it to it pretty soon. Like most of the recommendations, it takes some effort and creativity to vary things up. For example, if you are short of money, give the gift of time - Offer to make a repaid, weed a garden and so on.

Nurturing Social Relationships: One of the biggest factors in happiness appears to be maintaining strong personal relationships. This strategy involves putting effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family and friends

Some strategies include making time for an important person in your life (could be your wife or friend), express admiration and appreciation, be supportive and loyal when your friends needs it and enjoy their success.

Managing Stress Hardships And trauma | Learn to Cope: Coping is what people do to alleviate the hurt and stress caused by a negative event in life.

There are lots of studies showing benefit to expressive writing. The procedure involves writing about your most traumatic experience of you entire life. You just go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts, You should write about 15 minutes writing each day for several days in a row.

Learn to forgive: This is one area where there is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence exists. Let go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance by writing – but, not sending – a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you.  In this exercise called expressive writing identify the person who you blame for mistreating you offending you.

Another way is to practice empathy: Empathy involves understanding other person’s thoughts and emotions. One way to practice empathy is to notice every time someone who does something that you don’t understand. Try to work out their feelings, limitations or why did they do it or what factors might explain it.
Living in the Present | Increasing Flow Experience: When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called “flow,” 

So, become fully engaged at work, at home, and at play. Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether it’s completing a project at the office, playing with your children, or enjoying a hobby. Seek work and leisure activities that engage your skills and expertise.
Savoring Life’s Joy: Pay close attention and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a bakery, or the warmth of the sun when you step out from the shade

Committing to your Goals: People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project. That being said, being dedicated to any pursuit won’t make you happy if you’re just doing it for superficial reasons such as making money, boosting your ego, or succumbing to peer pressure.

Pursue intrinsic goals than extrinsic goals for superficial reasons like making money, boosting your ego or seeking power or fame. Perceiving intrinsic goals are more likely to make us happy because they are inspiring and enjoyable, hence we are more likely to persevere and succeed at them.

Taking Care of your body and Soul:Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term and promote energy and strong mental health. Practiced regularly, they can help make your daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.

Should I do all of them?

Best Fit: It is emphasized in the book that you pick the ones which you think will enjoy the most and hence will stick to it the longest. So you don’t have to do all of them. And yes it takes effort to and commitment to be happy.

I asked a couple of questions to Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky and she was kind enough to answer them.

1. Which strategy has the most support in research. I know it depends on the type of the person and circumstances. But which has the most number of studies and which shows the greatest magnitude of effect?

Hard to answer but most likely gratitude and in particular writing gratitude letters.


2. I see that most studies are weeks or months in duration. Do you think long terms studies lasting years have been conducted and show the same results?

Excellent point- We always say, just like with a prescription, you have to keep taking it for it to continue “working.”  The longest follow-ups are about 9 months I think (where the effects are still observable.) 

3) Any new books you are planning to write?

Yes, already done. I have a book coming out in January 2013— see below:

Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). The myth of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does, what happiness really is – and isn’t. New York: Penguin Press.

4) Any other book recommendations?

My favorite recent (nonfiction social science-type) books have been Gilbert Welch’s Overdiagnosed and Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

Now have a smile and express gratitude by sharing this post on Facebook or emailing it your friends please. As always, Exercise Biology will give you the most unbiased scientific information you will ever find to keep you healthy and fit.

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OMAR | Thu May 17, 2012  


Another great article. Thanks for the frequent site updates.


Anoop | Thu May 17, 2012  

Thanks Omar!

I always wondered about this topic. If you think about it, everything we do or we want do is somehow tied to happiness. Just a fascinating topic I think.

I am someone who rarely gets sad or unhappy. And I think I do a lot of the above things which makes a lot of sense now.

Anatoly | Thu May 17, 2012  

When I start thinking on not “over thinking” things suddenly I catch my self over thinking on how not to over think

Anoop | Thu May 17, 2012  

Hi Anatoly,

ha ha. That’s why you should watch a movie or something and distract yourself.

Sometimes we tend to get in a mood where we want to think about something sad and be more sad. You just have to tell yourself to stop thinking about it since it’s not going to bring that person back or make you feel better. I did it a bit when my Mom & Dad passed away within a month.

I thought the setting intrinsic goals are so important. We always say we should make goals and stuff. But do we ever look back at our goals and ask if this is intrinsic or is extrinsic? Most often it is some extrinsic goal of buying a a house or new car, making money and so forth.

MetroEast Beast | Mon June 04, 2012  

Another option to your list would be the company you keep.

Anoop | Wed June 06, 2012  

Hey Rob,

Thanks. It is in there “Nurturing Social relationships”.

And mind you, this is a list based on the studies done and which seems to have the most effect.

She mentioned a good book for people who are marred. And it seems to be one of the very few books based on studies than just opinions. I will look it up and email you.

MetroEast Beast | Mon June 11, 2012  

Thanks!  It’s important to look at your social company in my opinion.  If you surround yourself with positive people, it’s bound to rub off.

Bryan | Mon November 12, 2012  

Asking a person how happy they are on a scale of 10 is like asking someone how many calories they ate that day. Great “science.”

Anoop | Thu November 15, 2012  

Hi Bryan,

Happiness is an emotion just like pain,depression and so forth and hence it is subjective.And hence we use subjective scales

What a person is eat is an objective measure and can be measured objectively. It is as simple as that.

Bryan | Thu November 15, 2012  

What do you mean by the word “subjective”? I don’t think I was faulting these happiness studies for the same thing you think I am.

People almost always incorrectly recall what they’ve ate. Don’t you think its possible that people frequently underestimate or overestimate their feeling of joy depending on their current mood or other biases at the time of the survey? I’m not just talking about (ex) religious people rating their day as happier because they have an ideological interest in promoting their religion or people trying to prove they’re happier than they really are. I mean that you could ask a person how his day was at different times and he would evaluate the entire day as a different number depending on what he is focusing on in the moment. You could also ask someone how they rate an activity when they are doing it, and two days afterward, and get two different answers in how they felt.

The best studies that are decent measures of short term joy are the ones where psychologists give people buzzers which interrupt them periodically throughout the day to submit the activity they are doing as well as how they feel on a scale of 1 to 10. At least these studies remove some of the problems of measurement I mentioned above.

Secondly, the emotion of joy is not what most people are getting at when we say we want happiness (at least every philosopher and serious thinker throughout the ages, as well as most laymen). Injecting cocaine intravenously is a great means to joy. Joy, in itself, is not a reliable indicator for long term well-being and survival. Joy can frequently be contradictory to long term happiness and flourishing. Thus, I have little interest in how someone rates their joy from day to day. Sometimes serious, hard work is required for value creation and a flourishing life that you wouldn’t rate highly on a momentary hedonism scale but would reward you for the long term. This is what eudaimonists mean when they use the term happiness.

Anoop | Fri November 16, 2012  

Hi Bryan

I see your point and you have a valid point.

I am not really familiar with their measurement techniques . But I am guessing these confounding factors have already been studied and they have a way to minimize these, if not eliminate them. And most scales & questionnaires used are usually checked for validity and reliability before people use it in a study.

johnwan | Sun September 10, 2017  

This is a great topic.

What do you think?



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