The How of Happiness: An Insightful Summary

Summary of How of Happiness
Summary of The How of Happiness

If you’re interested to learn about the science of Positive Psychology in an easy-breezy and no-sweat way, then this book we summarize below must be one of the first ones to dive into.

Here’s a quick summary of what The How of Happiness is about:

While being happy can be a good thing, it may actually be bad for us to pursue happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research-based book “The How of Happiness” tells us how we can stop the pursuit of happiness, and instead learn to create our own happiness.

By the way, in short, positive psychology is the science of studying human happiness, strengths, wellbeing, and things that make a good life. This relatively new branch of psychology made its debut in 1998.

Why Read The How of Happiness

The author of this post reads that book once every year – and it’s six years counting. Why is this a great book to read and revisit?

First, because its author Sonja Lyubomirsky, a brilliant researcher and a distinguished professor at the University of California, is one of the founding parents of the positive psychology movement. The knowledge you get here is authoritative, right from the source of origin.

Second, the book serves you facts and claims on happiness that are scientifically accurate. Every suggestion and conclusion you find here is backed by psychological research.

And third, it’s written in a way you can easily read and grasp. For one, all the knowledge in the book is arranged crisply into three parts:

  1. How to Attain Real and Lasting Happiness
  2. Happiness Activities
  3. Secrets to Abiding Happiness

Summary of The How of Happiness in 9 Insights

1. Mindfulness, Savoring, Flow

All three of these increase our happiness.

Mindfulness is being attentive to the present moment without judgment. People who are highly mindful, that is, those who are sharply aware of their “here & now”, are more likely to flourish, and score on the positive side of mental health.

Savoring is trying to feel and admire, enjoy and extend our present positive experiences to the fullest. Those who savor the things they have, are happier. We should let ourselves truly appreciate the beauty and meaning in the things we are surrounded by.

Flow is a state of deep absorption in an activity, with such intense focus that we lose the sense of time. The book suggests being in a state of flow can be rewarding in itself, and can make us significantly happier.

2. Marriage

Married couples get a happiness boost for about two years, and then return to their baseline happiness.

Then what are the secrets of keeping a marriage happy and satisfying?

• One vital secret behind happy marriages is how a couple responds to each other’s successes. That is, if they revel in being happy at their counterpart’s successes, it makes a huge uptick in their relationship.

So, if there’s a good news to share, what matters is they are happy as if were their own success. Not when they quip, “I’m so happy for you,” but when they exclaim, “I’m so happy!”

• Also, studies show couples who idealize each other are less likely to lose love and satisfaction in their relationship. Idealizing means maximizing the strengths and virtues, while minimizing the weaknesses and flaws.

• Moreover, idealizing one’s spouse can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy, a psychological theory that says beliefs eventually turn real.

Being Single
Studies show single people are no less happy than, and enjoy as great happiness as, married people. They find their life’s meaning and purpose in other social relationships, as friends, partners, relatives, groups, and pursuits.

3. Ageing

You may be surprised to learn youth and early adulthood are not the sunniest times of our lives.

What research conclusively confirms is older people are actually happier and more satisfied with their lives than younger people. Happiness increases as we age, after around 40 years, and peaks after 60 years.

One key strategy for older people to get happier is to spend more time reminiscing.

Reminiscing is retrieval of autobiographical memories. The more time the seniors spend remembering their old times, the more positivity they add to their mood, morale and self-esteem.

What nostalgia does is breed positive feelings, and make the person feel more loved and protected.

If you know someone who is in their sunset years, you could share the following post on positive ageing with them:

4. Religion

Actively practicing divinity or spirituality is linked to better physical health, more prosocial behavior, and being more successful at keeping away from unhealthy behaviors as smoking.

Religious people tend to have more security, meaning, and purpose in life.

Those who are religious are happier, healthier, and cope better when they fall into bad times. This may be due to social support of their religious group.

5. Money

What about using money to buy happiness?

Research shows as long as your basic needs are met, it’s how you spend your money – not how much you possess – that influences your happiness more. The key is not in how financially successful you are, but what you do with it and how you deal it out.

While on money and happiness, we must note humans are prone to hedonic adaptation.

So, if you keep on amassing wealth for the sake of it, it’s not going to make you more and more happy – but less and less. Because you rapidly get used to that wealth.

• In short, money does makes us happier, but only till our basic needs are met, and thereafter, when we spend it in certain ways.

There are at least 7 Scientific Truths about Money and Happiness.

6. Experiences

Things we collect lie outside us, while our experiences nest inside us. Research finds it is not the things that keep us happy for long, but our experiences.

sonja lyubomirsky quote pic by Happiness India Project

Experiences are superior to goods and assets in making us happier because:

First, most of the stuff we buy doesn’t change much after we have bought them. So we adapt to them a great deal faster. Note the word: Adapt. It’s that hedonic adaptation we talked about earlier.

It doesn’t take long to start to feel our prized acquisitions have been there forever. In time, they grow old and dull, and we get eager to replace them with new shiny things we’d again get adapted to soon.

In contrast, experiences grow in value and joy as time passes. A fun-filled weekend, a lovely dinner, or a meaningful conversation, can get embossed into our memories and bring happiness every time we revisit them.

Our possessions become dull and dusty, and soon we stop noticing them. But our experiences grow value with time, and everyday we feel more joy having had them. Click To Tweet

Second, an experience is in itself more social. We are more likely to share, and relive our fond memories with others – much more than are our stuff.

• The third reason experiences make us happier is we are less likely to compare them to those of others. You don’t usually claim your holiday happiness was bigger than your friend’s, do you?

7. Altruism

Altruism is when we act out of concern for another’s wellbeing without expecting any reward. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.

Charity and altruism make us doubly happy.

With altruism, both the giver and the receiver feel happier.

When we give freely, we not only feel more positive about ourselves, but also about those who receive – that they are worthy of our kindness and respect.

When we’re charitable, we actively go out to reduce the distresses of poverty and suffering in the world. In the process, we distract ourselves from our own petty problems, gain greater appreciation for our good fortune, and step away from our worries.

8. Goals And Success

All of us have goals in life that define us. When we pursue them, it adds structure and purpose to our lives. They raise our self-esteem and self-confidence, and make us creative and productive. Most often, each of our major life goals are made up of many smaller goals.

Happiness comes before success, and drives it.

Man Is A Goal Seeking Animal- Aristotle

When we achieve these small goals, each makes us happier. This starts a positive feedback loop. Those many moments of small joys now drive us towards our bigger goals.

So you see, when we feel happy and good while striving towards our major life goals, we are more likely to keep working at it. Thus, happier people have greater chances of becoming successful.

9. Gratitude

Those who are routinely grateful have been found to be more energetic and optimistic, have better mental and physical health, have better relationships, and are high on happiness.

Feeling grateful regularly can bring us a bunch of benefits on physical and mental health.

Lyubomirsky writes,

They also tend to be more helpful and empathetic, more spiritual and religious, more forgiving, and less materialistic…[and] less likely to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.

Reasons Why Gratitude Makes You Happier: Gratitude…

  1. encourages morality
  2. raises self-worth and self-esteem
  3. helps prevent hedonic adaptation
  4. helps to stop comparing yourself to others
  5. fosters the savoring of positive experiences
  6. may reduce feelings of anger, resentment and greed
  7. helps you cope better with stressful and traumatic events
  8. help build new social bonds, and strengthen existing ones

Read this quick post on how to build your gratitude muscle!

Summary of The Science In The How of Happiness

The science in this book is solid. The professor had access to plentiful resources to do some great and authentic scientific research.

Lyubomirsky and her collaborator Ken Sheldon were given more than a million dollars by the National Institute of Mental Health to study and find out what makes the happy people happy, and how to use that ken to raise the happiness of the general population.

She writes at the preface:

The star of The How of Happiness is science.

To my knowledge, this is the first how-to-become-happier book authored by someone who has actually conducted research revealing how people can achieve a greater sense of happiness in their lives.

Every suggestion that I offer is supported by scientific research.

Coming to the book, Lyubomirsky reveals in the opening pages this critical fact about happiness:

  • Our happiness doesn’t depend on our circumstances as much as we think.

She backs it up with data. Look at the picture below:

The Happiness Pie-Chart
The Happiness Pie-Chart

What that The Happiness Pie Chart tells us is 50% of our happiness (the blue part in the figure) is determined by our genes, called happiness set point. And 40% (the green area) comes from our intentional activity, while the rest 10% is decided by our circumstances or life events.

We talk more on this up next.

How Much Happiness You Control

The fact is you can’t do much about that 50% of your genetic set point. So, if your parents are happy, you’ve a big shot at being happy. The reverse also holds true.

And data-wise, your life’s happenings surprisingly make up only around 10% of your happiness. So, a lottery win or an unfortunate accident does not impact more than 10% of our overall happiness.

From the data, however, we get this highly practical insight to run away with:

  • You have the power to control 40% of your happiness.

Remaking yourself as a happier person, a new person, is entirely in your hands, if you are willing to bring to bear some effort and commitment. – Sonja Lyubomirsky

You can make yourself happier by 40% directly through your actions and thoughts.

And you have to concur forty percent is one hefty figure. So much so that in fact, one of the book’s original titles was The 40 Percent Solution.

What Doesn’t Make You Happy

We live our whole lives with many happiness myths. We don’t realize the list of what all do not make us happy is a long one.

If you think a new relationship, looking younger, losing weight, having more money, a new job, will give you unending happiness, then you’re dead wrong. Positive psychology says, the circumstances and changes that happen to us, however great, don’t affect our happiness too much.

We tend to settle back to our base level after any happiness boost we get from a positive life event. The reason behind this is a common quirk of human nature called hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaption means we quickly become habituated and inured to most of the changes in our lives.

Things we think are going to make us lastingly happy, actually do not make us lastingly happy. And the things we think are going to keep us forever sad, do not actually keep us forever sad.

Happiness is not a pursuit or goal, it is a state of mind. Click To Tweet

Another myth about happiness is attaching an If or When to your happiness journey. As,

  • I’ll be happy if that happens, or
  • I’ll be happy when that happens.

Both are wrong. Once you’ve finished reading this summary, come back and click here to find out The Three Myths of Happiness.

Can You Measure Your Happiness

The book lays out a way to measure your happiness before you begin, and after you end, the process of adding happiness interventions to your life. After all, how else would you know if you’re better off doing what it suggests?

The short four-questions test Lyubomirsky and her colleagues devised for this is called Subjective Happiness Scale. You could check it out here.

Summary of The 12 Happiness Interventions From The Book

We can create our happiness. As we read, forty percent of our happiness depends on the activities we do with intention.

Lyubomirsky lays down the following twelve interventions or activities to do to increase our happiness:

  1. Expressing gratitude
  2. Cultivating optimism
  3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
  4. Practicing acts of kindness
  5. Nurturing relationships
  6. Developing strategies for coping
  7. Learning to forgive
  8. Doing more activities that truly engage you
  9. Savoring life’s joys
  10. Committing to your goals
  11. Practicing religion and spirituality
  12. Taking care of your body

However, she doesn’t decree you to start practicing all the twelve. Instead, she thoughtfully offers a Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic scale to find out which activities could be the best for your personality, and asks you to pick from those your 4 best fitting happiness strategies.

A Song Summarizing The Ideas of The How of Happiness

This rap song below is a great summary of the 12 strategies from The How of Happiness:

Happynewcomer and the How of Happiness
12 principles to increase your happiness

Final Words

It is possible to be happier, and you can take steps to create more happiness in your life.

So if there’s one book you could read to find out more about positive psychology, and one book to discover the scientific strategies to make your life happier, then this is the book to go to.


  • Myth or Fact: You Can’t Be Happy When Your Relationship Has Fallen Apart.

    Myth. The fact is: When a committed relationship comes apart, people falsely think they can never be happy again. However, research shows as soon as four years pass after the break of a troubled relationship, people are significantly happier than they ever had been during the marriage.

  • Myth or Fact: You Need A Partner To Be Happy.

    Myth. The fact is: Many believe not having a partner would make them miserable forever. However, studies show single people are no less happy than married ones, and that singles have been found to enjoy great happiness and meaning in other relationships and pursuits.

  • Myth or Fact: You Will Be Happy When You’re Rich and Successful.

    Myth. The fact is: When we reach a certain goal-post of prosperity and success, happiness proves elusive or short-lived. Life after success can become boring and empty. When that happens, we get a mix of negative emotions with the positive ones, even depression. Many rich and successful people do not realize the key to buying happiness is not in how successful they are, but what they do with that success.

The How of Happiness with Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, at Happiness and Its Causes 2016
A talk by Sonja Lyubomirsky

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.

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