Being happy isn’t always easy, humans are complicated creatures. While our brains might be capable of performing wildly complex tasks, they can also sabotage our well-being. But what if there were a (prescription-free) method of keeping ourselves content?
What if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, that kind of happiness could be within reach—for almost everyone. Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has devoted her career to the study of happiness: what it is, what it does and why it exists. And her findings are cause for optimism.
“Not everyone is going to be naturally happy all the time,” Lyubomirsky says. Her studies have investigated two components of happiness: cognitive, that is, a sense of satisfaction with life, and emotional, the raw experience of joy. For many of us, experiencing these two components simultaneously is rare, but according to Lyubomirsky, “there are certain strategies we can all use to maximize our happiness.”
To uncover these strategies, Lyubomirsky and her team designed a series of experiments called “happiness interventions.”
In one of these studies, one set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another set was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness – but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore or, worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.
Another study demonstrated the surprising impact a simple act of kindness can have on one’s overall well-being. In a series of workplace experiments in Madrid, Spain, Lyubomirsky and her student Joe Chancellor privately asked several workers (the givers) to perform an act of kindness (deliver a compliment or a cup of coffee) for five of their colleagues (the receivers) every week.
Somewhat obviously, the receivers, who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed with goodwill, underwent an immediate boost in happiness. More unexpected, however, was the effect on the givers: They, too, became notably happier—happier even, than the receivers. And their happiness was more enduring—four months later, the givers were still happier than they had been before the experiment, while the receivers’ happiness had petered out.
But the happiness created by the experiment wasn’t limited to the givers and receivers.
“Everyone started doing more positive things in the workplace,” says Lyubomirsky. “Even the observers began to act more generously toward others. Everybody paid it forward.”