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Help yourself to a bigger slice of happiness

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What makes you happy?

Money? The newest iPhone? The good health of your family? A promotion at work?

Some interesting work by University of California researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky not only suggests where our happiness comes from, but shows how to get more of it.

Pieces of the happiness pie

Dr. Lyubomirsky proposes that there are three components to the happiness pie: a genetically-based “happiness set point,*” life circumstances, and intentional activities and practices. She has broken these three areas into percentages regarding how much they are responsible for your happiness.

You might want to be sitting down for this first one. Ready? A genetically-based happiness set point – something you inherited – is responsible for a whopping 50% of your overall happiness.

Life circumstances – things like the aforementioned iPhone, family health, and work promotion – account for only 10% of your happiness. You thought it would be more, didn’t you?

That leaves intentional activities aimed toward positive emotion providing you with 40% of your happiness quotient.

Now, here are a couple of important things to know:

  • Your happiness set point is genetic and therefore impervious to change. You’re stuck with it. The idea is that no matter what happens – good or bad – you tend to eventually settle back into your inherited level of happiness. So, there’s no use trying to make an impact on your happiness set point.
  • You could try to improve your life circumstances by getting more stuff, striving for career goals, and finding the perfect partner. But not only do life circumstances only account for a small percentage of your happiness, they are subject to a very human process: hedonic adaptation. In a nutshell, this means that we very quickly adapt to new things in our lives, so our happiness about it is short-lived.

Taking action toward happiness

So that leaves us with intentional activities as the remaining piece of the happiness pie, a piece that creates 40% of our well-being.** Lyubomirsky believes it is this component that we have the most control over and that allows us to take action rather than merely react when it comes to creating happiness.

So what are these activities that promote positive emotions and well-being? Lyubomirsky suggests three well-researched practices:

1. Committing acts of kindness. Doing nice things for others tends to up your happiness quotient. Curiously, Lyubomirsky found that doing several acts of kindness on the same day – rather than spreading them out through the week – generated the greatest jump in well-being.

2. Expressing gratitude and optimism. Keeping a list of things you are grateful for really does help make you happier. An intriguing note on this component is the discovery that making a list one time per week created a greater boost in happiness than making lists three or more times per week.

3. Processing happy and unhappy life experiences. This is where it really gets interesting. It turns out that talking or writing about your life experiences is helpful in only one of these conditions: the negative experiences.

Why? Apparently, talking to a friend or writing about difficult times in your life helps you to create a story and structure around the event, an act which helps you make sense of it and adjust to the experience more easily.

Positive experiences, however, generate more happiness if they are thought about privately. This allows you to savor and re-experience them without having to analyze them. It’s perfectly fine to talk with others about great things that happen to you; this will brighten your friend’s day, too! But be sure to remember and relish those good events in your life in your private time, too.

I asked at the beginning of this post, What makes you happy? I hope that these three strategies will help you arrange the pieces of your happiness pie so they bring you tasty, sweet joy!

Takeaway points: Life circumstances only make up a small portion of our happiness and our genetically-based “happiness set point” can’t be changed, so what can we do? The practices of acts of kindness, gratitude, and processing life experiences can boost our happiness through intentional action.

This post is based on the following paper by Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Lyubomirsky, S. & Della Porta, M.D. (2010). Boosting Happiness, Buttressing Resilience: Results from Cognitive and Behavioral Interventions. In J.W. Reich, A.J. Zautra, & J.S. Hall (Eds.) Handbook of of Adult Resilience (450-464.) New York: The Guilford Press.

*Of course, more research is being conducted about this moderately controversial topic. However, you can see these papers for the basics of the happiness set point:

Lykken, D. (1999). Happiness: What studies on twins show us about nature, nurture, and the happiness set-point. New York: Golden Books.

Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186-189.

**The terms “happiness” and “well-being” are interchangeable in Lyubomirsky’s research.


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.