The How of Happiness

The How of Happiness

Resilience remains at the top of my list as a capacity essential to living a conscious and fulfilling life. Now that the manuscript for Bouncing Back is on the assembly line at the publisher, I’m catching up on so many other folks’ offerings of practices of healing and awakening that, research shows, also lead to more resilience and well-being.

Last month’s e-newsletter explored positivity, Barbara Frederickson’s very accessible presentation of the research that makes a convincing case that positive emotions are not simply the result of becoming more resilient but, in fact, are a direct, demonstrable cause of resilience.

This month I offer an overview of The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s groundbreaking compilation of research into the What, the Why, and the How of 12 practices that contribute to a sustainable inner happiness and peace. An entire book could be written about each one; indeed, many such books are now being written.

The gathering together of the 12 practices and five supports in the book, and offered in Reflections and Exercises below, make so much practical sense. For folks who already have a daily gratitude practice or know the importance of cultivating healthy relationships and re-directing self-critical thoughts into more affirming ones, the choices activities suggested here can resound with a big “duh!”

But the emerging scientific research to support our own common sense is very reassuring, giving us permission to go full steam ahead with what may dedicated practitioners in many different disciplines are discovering actually works to deepen our happiness and well-being. May these reflections and tools prove useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Creating Happiness

More and more research shows that the pursuit – or creation – of happiness is not a selfish endeavor at all. Folks who deliberately cultivate happiness – in flavors of joy, contentment, love, pride, awe, – are more creative and productive, more flexible and resilient, more charitable and more cooperative, are healthier and live longer than folks who don’t.

Here are the headlines: if you have time for only this much, you’ll find here a menu of choices that can reliably lead to more inner happiness and fulfillment.

Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking

1. Express gratitude
2. Cultivate optimism
3. Avoid overthinking and social comparison

Investing in Social Connections (central to health and well-being)

4. Practice acts of kindness
5. Nurture social relationships

Managing Stress, Hardship and Trauma

6. Develop strategies for coping
7. Learn to forgive

Living in the Present

8. Increase flow experiences
9. Savor life’s joys

Committing to Your Goals

10. Commit to your goals

Taking Care of Your Body and Soul

11. Practice spirituality or religion
12. Do physical activity

Five Supports to Sustain Happiness

1. Positive emotions
2. Optimal timing and variety
3. Social support
4. Motivation, effort and commitment
5) Habit

If you have time for more, know that Lyubomirsky’s research is presented in the context that happiness comes from within and can be cultivated and learned. Acknowledging that we can’t always change our outer circumstances nor our previous conditioning (though I think a good personal therapy can accomplish far more on that score that Lyubomirsky gives credit for) these 12 practices and 5 supports are offered as choices that require change. When we make those choices every day, over time they will increase our level of happiness beyond the limitations of circumstances or temperament.

Lyubomirsky strongly recommends beginning with one or two practices that best already suit our personality and lifestyle to build a sense of momentum and success; all of these practices require sustained effort over time to generate enduring, renewable happiness. The book offers a wealth of delightful examples and stories to illustrate the research findings as well as the finding of many different research studies that I don’t have room for here. (See resources below) I describe the What and the Why of the practices in these Reflections; the How is offered in Exercises below.

1. Express Gratitude

WHAT: the felt sense of thankfulness, appreciation, wonder; savoring life’s joys; not taking things for granted.

WHY: antidotes anxiety, loneliness, envy;
opens the door to other positive emotions and optimism
promotes self-esteem and self-worth
helps us cope with stress and trauma
deepens social bonds and sense of connectedness

2. Cultivate Optimism

WHAT: seeing the glass half full; finding meaning or the silver lining in difficulties; noticing what’s right with this wrong; trusting yourself to get through something

WHY: visualizing the future and the potential of dreams creates self-fulfilling prophecies; helps us realize those dreams.
boosts motivation and morale, enthusiasm and self-regard
organizes thoughts, helps us take initiative and persevere
helps us cope and grow, even from adversity

3. Avoid Overthinking and Social Comparison


WHAT: self-focused rumination; excessively, endlessly, needlessly, passively, pondering meanings, causes, consequences of one’s character, feelings, problems. [Of course, we know from psychology and contemplative traditions, a positive inward focus can generate insight into experience, resolve problems and alleviate suffering]

WHY: rumination perpetuates powerlessness, saps motivation;
negative events devolve into negative “me;”
interferes with resolving problems;
de-rails concentration and initiative in face of the inner critic
re-directing or re-interpreting such thoughts builds capacity to handle illness, rejection, failure.

Social comparison:

WHAT: external measures of success and self worth rather than inner measure. (Research shows that the happier someone is from the inside out, the less attention they pay to how others around them are doing.)

WHY: when negative, comparing ourselves can lead to envy, sense of inferiority, loss of self-esteem

4. Practice Acts of Kindness

WHAT: the generous thinking of and doing for others

WHY: very much enlightened self-interest; changes self-perception toward compassion, empowerment, connectedness and meaning

5. Nurture Social Relationships

WHAT: investing in connection is central to health and well-being, lifelong. The two-way street of reciprocal positive regard generates an upward spiral of trust, empathy, belonging, and reliable inter-dependence

WHY: support in times of stress and trauma
improves health and longevity
generates love and meaning
because relationships change constantly, keeps us alive and fresh

6. Develop Strategies of Coping

WHAT: act in ways that alleviate pain and suffering caused by negative or traumatic events; build social support to reduce stress, and broaden perspectives

WHY: broader perspectives on events can be a wake-up call to re-organize priorities and see the value and learning in loss and trauma
develop maturity and strengths of character you didn’t know you had
move to higher level of functioning
deepen faith on one’s self
re-thinking assumptions and beliefs can lead to post-traumatic growth and personal transformation
discern which relationships are reliable and which ones are not, while developing greater compassion for all
appreciate preciousness of life and present moment

7. Forgiveness

WHAT: understanding, compassion, and letting go of anger or hurt from being attacked or wronged by another. Not reconciliation, condoning, excusing or minimizing, but releasing pain for our own well-being.

WHY: lessens pain, resentment, hostility, anxiety and depression in us

8. Increase Flow Experiences

WHAT: absorption in activity at a level that challenges skill without creating anxiety;
immerse in concentration; lose track of time; lose track of self

WHY: inherently pleasurable and fulfilling, but is also lasting and reinforcing
we become more competent, more complex, improves self-worth
generates empowerment and meaning

9. Savoring Life’s Joys (stop and smell the roses)

WHAT: when we experience the positive or the good, deliberately noticing, engaging, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment

WHY: creates resources from the past, antidotes negativity in the moment; creates optimism for the future
leads to more happiness and well-being
strengthens identity, pride, meaning and connections
generates new perspectives and insights
acts as a real morale booster as we age
opens us to variety and excellence; moves us toward resilience and awe.

10. Commit to Goals

WHAT: striving for what is personally significant ; not ego or someone else’s choices, but personally chosen and personally rewarding, intrinsic and authentic to you. As powerful as presence in the moment is for creating sustained well-being, finding a sense of meaning and purpose, the fulfillment of creativity and productivity, a raison d’etre or reason for being, are as powerful. (Lyubomirsky acknowledges it takes self-awareness and emotional intelligence to discern these goals.)

WHY: skillful action to reach a wholesome goal creates structure, purpose and meaning in one’s life
skillful effort generates competence, mastery, empowerment and improves self-worth
motivated effort leads to a balance of autonomy and relatedness; improves social connections
encourages tendencies to move toward experience and life rather than moving away
develops skills of organizing and using time well
the flexibility needed to realize our goals helps us cope with stress and trauma better

11. Practice Spirituality or Religion

WHAT : Relationship with or transcendent experience of divine or sacred in context of community. Meditation specifically: openness to experience in non-judgmental, non-striving way, letting go of experience (rather than ruminating)

WHY: develops a moral compass to guide our conscious living
we cope better with stressors
we are healthier, happier in relationships, live longer
we develop awe, reverence, compassion, gratitude, serenity, calm.
strengthens social connections and community
encourages tendencies to move toward experience and life rather than moving away

12. Physical Activity

WHAT : movement that increases energy expenditure above a resting level

WHY exercise often relieves depression as effectively as medication
develops self-esteem and mastery
increases flow experiences; increases energy, vigor, enthusiasm

Science shows, all of the above practices increase our levels of happiness in a cause and effect way, not just as a correlation to or an outcome of happiness. That’s good news. That we can choose to use tools and techniques that will expand our happiness in positive reliable ways.

Lyubomirsky offers 5 further supports that renew and reinforce the happiness these practices generate, helping the happiness sustain or last in measurable ways. [Interestingly, she doesn’t focus on mindfulness practice, which science also shows is essential for any of these practices to be effective. Mindfulness is as essential, and as invisible, as breathing.]

1. Positive emotions – the research of Barbara Frederickson reported in the July 2012 e-newsletter on Positivity. Cultivating joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, delight, inspiration, awe and love broadens our horizons and builds mental, physical and social resources. Positive emotions undo negative emotions, reduce stress, and promote resilience, creativity, flexibility and optimism.

2. Optimal timing and variety – because human beings naturally adapt to circumstances and settle into routines, it’s helpful to vary the practices and vary the timing of when we do them (random days rather than every day or every Tuesday) to bypass that adaptation and keep the practices (and thus our mood) alive and fresh.

3. Social Support – necessary for practical as well as emotional resourcing; connections with others provide encouragement, reassurance and validation for all of the practices

4. Motivation, Effort, Commitment – increasing happiness is a choice, and it’s a lot of work. We have to set an intention, learn what is useful, put in the effort, and sustain that effort for the long haul.

5. Habits – we create cues as reminders to practice, to initiate practices, but researchers have found it’s less effective to do a practice in the same way every time than it is to spice it up – keep it fresh and interesting through variety, maintaining interest and curiosity by cultivating the new.


Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
– Guillaume Apollinaire

* * * * *

Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.
– Colette

* * * * *

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
– E. B. White

* * * * *

What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.
– Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

* * * * *

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator. He will not be striving for it a s a goal in itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four purposeful hours of the day.
– W. Beran Wolfe

* * * * *

Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
– Helen Keller

* * * * *

I don’t know what our destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
– Albert Schweitzer

* * * * *

Happiness consists in activity. It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.
– John Mason Good

* * * * *

There is no happiness without action.
– Benjamin Disraeli

* * * * *

To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.
– William James

* * * * *

Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.
– C.S. Lewis

* * * * *

Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great piece of good fortune that happen but seldom.
– Benjamin Franklin

* * * * *

The world is full of people looking for spectacular happiness while they snub contentment.
– Doug Larson

* * * * *

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.
– James Openheim

* * * * *

If you search the world for happiness, you may find it in the end, for the world is round and will lead you back to your own door.
– Robert Brault

* * * * *

Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.
– William Feather

* * * * *

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.
– Denis Waitley


Learning to Forgive (adapted from The How of Happiness, p. 169)

Amy Biehl graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in international relations and received a Fulbright scholarship to research women’s rights and fight segregation in South Africa. In 1993, just two days before she was to come home to California, at age 26, she was pulled from her car and stabbed to death by a mob in Guguletu township, near Cape Town. Two years later Amy’sparents returned to the township and met with some of the killers’ families to console them and to establish the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust to develop programs that would empower youth in the townships and discourage further violence.

Four young men were sentenced to eighteen years in prison for Amy’s murder. In 1998, the Biehls came to witness their testimony in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, during which the four men expressed remorse and pleaded for amnesty. The Biehls made every effort to release their anger, hurt and hatred; they supported the release of the four men.

Amy’s mother returned to South Africa again, this time to forgive one of the four killers, a man names Ntobeko Peni. He saw himself as a young freedom fighter, growing up poor and segregated in South Africa’s townships, taught from childhood that whites were the enemy. Mrs. Biehl went beyond forgiving him. She gave Ntobeko a job and with the job, a future. He works as a guide and peer educator for HIV/AIDS awareness at the Amy Biehl Foundation’s programs outside Cape Town. He also travels the world with Amy’s mother to tell their story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Increasing Flow Experiences (adapted from the How of Happiness, p. 225)

Kurt Schwengel is a kindergarten teacher in Santa Monica, CA who creates a new curriculum for his students every three weeks. (Star Wars, baseball, Japan, the mystery of the missing swordfish are examples given.) He takes his 5 year-old students to college basketball games, the beach, the dinosaur museum and introduces them to bowling and sushi. His students are learning how to read, how to use scissors, how to play Uno and how to putt. His students love his happiness-enhancing strategies, engaged in the flow of exploring and learning, and Kurt sees his own life enriched by “the best job in the world.”


The HOW. Research validates every single one of these tools. Mindfulness is needed for them all.

1. Express Gratitude

a) keep a gratitude journal (once a week has more impact than once a day)
b) write gratitude letters or initiate a direct conversation of appreciation
c) find a gratitude buddy to share and savor experiences with

2. Cultivate Optimism

a) imagine your best possible self 1-5-10 years from now; take that best possible self seriously as the self that could realize your dreams
b) identify resources and strengths you’ve used before to achieve goals now
c) identify “barrier” thoughts and dispute them
* what could this situation or experience mean?
* Can anything good come from it?
* Does it present any opportunities for me?
* What lessons can I learn and apply to the future?
* Did I develop any strengths as a result?
d) without denying or glossing over negative, put positive in the foreground

3. Avoid Overthinkingg and Social Comparison

a) re-interpret or re-direct negative thoughts, “cut them loose,” so you can feel good about your self as the platform for handling external upsets, hassles and reversals. [Therapy can be pretty darn helpful here.] b) re-focus your attention on activities that make you feel happy, curious, peaceful, proud: read, listen to music, spend time with a friend or in nature, exercise
c) notice the negative, say “stop!” and switch the channel to something more wholesome and affirming
d) make an appointment to deal with negative thoughts; the psyche knows they will get their turn and can let things go for now
e) talking things over with a good friend or therapist to “re-right” your view of yourself
f) journal – a good way to organize thoughts and shift perspectives

(under the umbrella of post-traumatic growth)

g) take action – do one small thing to shift gears and gain a new perspective
h) avoid old triggers and cultivate new cues, new interests, new competencies; when you fill yourself up and build yourself up, there’s less need to focus on the past or on others
i) take in the big picture – will this problem still matter a month or a year from now? If it will still matter, what can you do about it or learn from it?

4. Practice Acts of Kindness

Whatever you choose to do – let someone go ahead of you in line or at a stop sign, pay the toll for the car behind you, volunteer at a pre-school or local library, small is even better than large scale – more frequency, more variety, keeps the practice fresh and the benefits steady.

5. Nurture Social Relationships

a) take time to be together and talk directly (hugs are great, too)
b) express appreciation and affection in a ratio of 5 positive to every one negative
c) respond positively and empathically to the good news of the other
d) manage conflict (negotiate rather than escalate, resolve rather than devolve)
e) share inner life, hopes and dreams

6. Develop Strategies for Coping

a) journaling – not for catharsis but to organize events into a coherent narrative and make sense of them. Creating structure and meaning makes events more manageable. And to document how you’ve grown: more capable, more compassionate, more accepting, more grateful
b) dispute negative thoughts, especially about your self. You can experiment with more positive self-beliefs and meaning, and notice the shifts in perspective

7. Forgiveness

a) appreciate times you have been forgiven by another
b) ask for forgiveness for yourself as prep for forgiving another
c) imagine forgiving as a rehearsal to offering forgiveness
d) write a letter of forgiveness as prep for offering forgiveness; write your own letter that you would like to receive back for the other person, acknowledging harm and offering an apology
e) generate your own understanding and empathy for the other’s behavior before offering forgiveness
f) take action rather than ruminating (even catharsis digs the negative grooves deeper)

8. Increasing Flow Experiences

a) focus attention fully on activity, no distractions or interruptions
b) open to new and different experiences, focus on learning from them
c) when engaged in creative and productive work, recognize flow as it happens
d) notice micro flow in little moments
e) increase resonance in conversations with others through interest and listening
f) be conscious and choiceful about leisure time
g) find a sense of calling or purpose in work; see your contribution to a larger whole
h) notice moments of “superflow,” transcendent experiences.

9. Savor Life’s Joys

a) being with an experience in the moment or replaying and relishing a moment from the past is more conducive to savoring than stepping back, reflecting, or writing about it.
b) relish ordinary experiences – slow down rather than rushing through a meal, a shower, a walk
c) share the savoring with others, in the moment or in mutual reminiscing
d) take in pleasures of the senses to come into present moment
e) use awareness of transience of experience to focus on goodness now; don’t miss it!

10. Commit to Goals

a) write out the legacy you would like to leave when you die
b) commit to realizing your dreams with passion and perseverance
c) own your goals as your own, commit to them publicly
d) take action toward the goal; see yourself taking action; create the self-fulfilling prophecy
e) stay flexible – keep overarching goal in view but be able to change strategies as circumstances change
f) take baby steps; make the steps concrete and specific
g) at every step, identify blocking beliefs that interfere with achieving goals; dispute or re-interpret them
h) keep steps interesting and varied; don’t turn them into routine or duty

11. Practice spirituality or religion

a) meditation or prayer that evokes a sense of presence in the moment generates more happiness than asking for benefits or gifts
b) seek meaning and purpose within suffering and loss
c) savor and appreciate the miracles of ordinary life
d) practice throughout the day, not just in formal practice or worship

12. Physical Activity

a) do what fits your lifestyle and time constraints
b) do what is intrinsically motivating and rewarding


Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin Press, New York, 2007.

The book The How of Happiness contains the research findings validating the practices and supports reviewed in this newsletter, along with wonderful stories and examples, and very accessible endnotes for further reading. A fascinating gateway into choices we can make and activities we can pursue to generate more joy, delight, pride, resilience, contentment and ease in our lives.