Is Happier Always Better? Socially Yes, Financially No

People around the world value happiness – that is, feeling good – above intelligence, success and even material wealth.

Married Couple

[Photo by Huro Kitty]

People around the world value happiness – that is, feeling good – above intelligence, success and even material wealth (Diener & Oishi, 2006). This makes sense because happiness is associated with so many positive outcomes: satisfaction with personal relationships, better jobs, better performance in those jobs and a higher income.

Continue reading “Is Happier Always Better? Socially Yes, Financially No”

Do We Know What Makes Us Happy?

Happiness is all about everyday, normal activities, psychologists have argued, but do we intuitively understand what strategies increase happiness or not?

Group of friends

[Photo by tookie]

Happiness is all about everyday, normal activities, psychologists have argued, but do we intuitively understand what strategies increase happiness or not? To find out if students knew, Tkach and Lyubomirsky (2006) asked 500 undergraduates about the strategies they used to increase their happiness.

Below are the strategies students reported using, starting with the most frequently used, down to the least. Also, for each strategy Tkach and Lyubomirsky looked at the relationship between its use and students’ reported levels of happiness to see if those who used a particular strategy were actually happier.

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3 Happiness Enhancing Activities With Evidence They Work

Three activities that have evidence to back up their claims for increasing happiness.

The ‘How to Be Happy’ article has become a staple of newspapers, magazines, books and, increasingly, of websites. We should ‘accept reality’, or ‘take a break’, or ‘be honest with ourselves’, or ‘surround ourselves with happy people’.

These things are unlikely to do us any harm but that doesn’t stop them reading like a list of platitudes – the kind that people are always doling out but never follow themselves.

We can all create our own lists of happiness enhancing activities and argue endlessly about which is better and for whom. While that’s fun for a bit, I always want to ask: which activities have evidence to back up their claims for increasing happiness?

Psychologists have only started investigating this question relatively recently, so there’s not a very long list and it is obviously far from exhaustive, but at least there’s some research to back them up. The activities psychologists have investigated are gratitude, helping others, and firstly, visualising your best possible self.

1. Visualising your best possible self

Visualising your best possible self may sound like an exercise in fantasy but, crucially, it does have to be realistic. Carrying out this exercise typically involves imagining your life in the future, but a future where everything that could go well, has gone well. You have reached those realistic goals that you have set for yourself.

Then, to help cement your visualisation, you commit your best possible self to paper. This exercise draws on the proven benefits of expressive writing.

The effectiveness of this activity was tested in a study by King (2001). Students were asked to write about their best possible future selves for 20 minutes over 4 consecutive days. This group was compared with one writing on a neutral topic, one writing about traumatic life events and another writing about both traumatic events and their best possible future selves.

The results showed that those who had only written about their best possible selves showed greater improvements in subjective well-being compared to all the other groups. The benefits of the exercise could even be measured fully five months later.

Since the results were so encouraging after only a four-day exercise, two other studies have investigated longer periods. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) and Dickerhoof et al. (2007) carried out studies over 4 and 8 weeks respectively. Both of these backed up the previous findings.

It’s not hard to speculate on why this exercise might be effective, it probably helps to:

  • Create a sense of efficacy, meaning and purpose.
  • Foster optimism.
  • Set written goals and plan means of achieving them.


2. Helping others

Even if you haven’t come across the ‘best possible selves’ exercise, you’ll almost certainly have heard the idea that helping others is beneficial to the self. Helping out at a soup kitchen, volunteering on a helpline, visiting shut-ins – all are certainly virtuous activities. But isn’t helping others for no tangible personal benefit too much like self-sacrifice?

Actually, the research suggests there’s a very good selfish reason to help others – it really does seem to make us happier. In one study students were asked to perform five acts of kindness each week for six weeks (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). These were things like writing a thank-you note, giving blood or helping a friend with their work. Students were told either to perform one act each day or all five acts on one day.

Both experimental groups showed a better outcome than the control group whose well-being declined over the six-week period (perhaps exams were looming!). Those who performed their acts of kindness each day showed a small increase in well-being.

But the highest well-being was seen in those students who carried out all their acts of kindness on one single day on each of the six weeks of the study. Their well-being increased by an impressive 40%.

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade (2005) suggest the reason for the difference is that a single act of kindness each day doesn’t make an appreciable difference to the everyday routine, especially as these were only small acts.

3.Practicing gratitude

I’ve already covered the third activity that has shown promise in increasing happiness: practicing gratitude. A study conducted by Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that sitting down weekly to write about five things we are grateful for increased happiness levels by 25%. If you’re short of ways of practicing gratefulness, this list of ways to be grateful culled from Dr Emmons’ book will be useful.

You might also be interested in my review of Dr Robert Emmons’ book ‘thanks!’ which details his experiments and expands on practicing gratitude.

Reasons to be cheerful

I’m sure these are only a tiny subset of the ways we can increase our happiness. At the moment, though, these are some of the ones that have the research to back them up.

In many ways these findings are encouraging. None of these activities involves spending vast amounts of money (or any money really!), none take up that much time and they are all within almost everyone’s reach.

The real challenge they present is in making changes to our daily routines, our standard ways of thinking and behaving. Compared to what we often perceive as a long and winding road to happiness, this trip looks like a doddle, if only we’d open our eyes and look.

ยป Read more evidence on the power of gratitude.


Dickerhoof, R., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2007). How and why do intentional activities work to boost well-being?: An experimental longitudinal investigation of regularly practicing optimism and gratitude. Manuscript under review.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73-82.

Tkach, C. (2005). Unlocking the treasury of human kindness: Enduring improvements in mood, happiness, and self-evaluations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Riverside.


Being Happy: Enjoyable Activities Beat Improved Life Circumstances

Engaging in new activities increases our happiness more than an improvement in our circumstances.


[Photo by tookie]

Being happy and staying happy is all about our day-to-day activities according to this theory of sustainable happiness. Research suggests that the contributions to our happiness are 50% genetic, 10% from our life circumstances and fully 40% determined by our day-to-day activities. But what evidence is there for this theory?

Continue reading “Being Happy: Enjoyable Activities Beat Improved Life Circumstances”

Americans Less Happy with Positive Events than Asians

A new study finds that when positive events happen to European Americans, they do not increase happiness as much as for Japanese, Asian Americans and Koreans.

Frowning Child

[Photo by WadeB]

A new study finds that when positive events happen to European Americans, they do not increase happiness as much as for Japanese, Asian Americans and Koreans. The Washington Post reports that on average, for each single negative event a European American experiences, they need 1.91 positive events to bring them back to the same level of happiness. For Koreans it is 1.32, for Asian Americans it is 1.31 and for Japanese it is 1:1. How can this be explained?

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Men Happier Than Women? Another Bogus Sex Difference

Claims of a ‘happiness gap’ come from evidence finding that in the last 35 years women’s subjective well-being has been in decline.


[Photo by tavopp]

Nowadays men are apparently happier, on average, than women, claims a piece in the New York Times. This claim of a ‘happiness gap’ comes from evidence finding that in the last 35 years women’s subjective well-being has been in decline, despite the objective improvement in women’s lives over that time. In the 1970s women’s subjective wellbeing was higher than men, now the reverse is true.

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Happiness is Right Outside

Activities in the open air have the strongest restorative effects on our mental states.


Just having a break from work is not enough suggests new research, it is activities in the open air which have the strongest restorative effects on our mental states.

Everyone gets down sometimes – it’s only natural. It would be more unusual never to be depressed. The idea that depression is an on-off condition with a purely chemical foundation is a myth no psychologist would endorse. The causes of depression can be many and widespread. But one cause many of us have to cope with is work.

One of the main weapons against stress building up from work is going on vacation. Holidays are a firmly established way of allowing the mind and body to recuperate. In new research, however, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Hartig, Catalano and Ong (2007) find that all holidays are not created equal.

Continue reading “Happiness is Right Outside”

Creating a Happy Society

Prospect Magazine has a blue skies article on the intersection between the psychology of happiness and politics. It asks how the research about what makes us happy can inform the way we organise our society.

While most of the suggestions made in this article are sensible, the weak link is motivation. Do we really want to be happy, and if we do, is there any reason for the political machine to deliver the changes that are required? These are simple but fundamental questions.

Still, it does us all some good to dream about a utopia. Without a dream, how do we know what to aim for?
From Prospect Magazine

The new science of happiness

For the last century or more, psychology has focussed on mental illness. It’s challenge has been to help people with their problems, and to bring them back to ‘normality’ – whatever that is!

It wasn’t until the late-90s that psychologists studying the science of happiness started to hit the headlines. Time magazine describes some of their surprising findings. One of my favourites is the idea that pleasure is not actually an important component of happiness.

> From Time Magazine

Curb on the happy pills

It seems that the tide of opinion is beginning to turn against SSRI anti-depressants, the most well-known of which are Prozac and Seroxat. The UK Government announced today that doctors should, in most cases, prescribe them at their lowest doses.

This is one of the first official steps back that the government has been prepared to make on this difficult issue. Many argue that this is not enough, especially in the case of children where the evidence is questioning their suitability. Indeed, the prescription of all SSRI anti-depressants except Prozac to those under eighteen has already been banned.

The real cause of these problems is the number of people presenting at their GPs complaining of depression. Psychological interventions have been shown to be just as effective as anti-depressants, but without the side-effects. Unfortunately their cost has so far been prohibitive.

> From The Guardian

> USA Today reports that the latest American research indicates that even (the relatively safe) Prozac increases suicidal thoughts in some children.

> The New York Times picks up the new UK recommendations, noting that US health authorities have previously followed British guidelines.

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