The How Of Happiness: An Insightful Summary

Trying to become happier by improving one’s life circumstances—if those circumstances are not dreadful in the beginning—is unlikely to pay off. Click To Tweet

Interested in learning some happiness-boosting strategies from The Science of Happiness in an easy-breezy, smart, and fun way? This is the first book to dive into! This synopsis will capture your attention and prod you to buy the self-help/pop-sci bestseller.

Here is a teaser: If you think getting married will make you happier forever, or that divorce will make a person sulk and feel miserable for the rest of their lives, you are wrong in either case. Dive in for more.

Summary of The How of Happiness

Here is a 3-sentence summary of the book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want:

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research-based book “The How of Happiness” tells us that we cannot achieve long-term happiness by changing our life circumstances. The joys of marriage or a lucrative job do not last. However, we can boost our daily happiness using simple behavioral strategies called positive interventions.

The book is based on extensive research by experts from positive psychology — the branch of science that studies happiness, strengths, wellbeing, and things making a good life. Its author, Sonja Lyubomirsky, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She received her B.A. from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University.

Summary of How of Happiness

One surprising revelation from the book is: Marriage does not make us lastingly happier. A famous study on marriage shows the happiness boost of marriage only lasts for an average of 2 years.

Though people do receive an emotional boost from highly positive events such as getting married, these initial boosts do not last indefinitely (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener, 2003), as people tend to adapt to their life circumstances over time (i.e., to experience hedonic adaptation; Lyubomirsky, 2011).

A marriage, or any other intimate relationship, that has entered the phase of hedonic adaptation, makes one feel boredom, dissatisfaction, and neglect, and they stop paying attention to their partner. It is a crucial factor fuelling divorce or breakup.

People also adapt to divorce rather sooner than they expect. On average, people do not seem to stay miserable for as long as they think they will do. In fact, after some years, divorced people become happier than they were before.

9 Delightful Insights Summarizing The How of Happiness

1. Mindfulness, Savoring, Flow

All three can increase our happiness.

Video by HIP.

Mindfulness is being attentive to the present moment with no judgment. Highly mindful people, 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 in their life are happier people. We should let ourselves truly appreciate the beauty and meaning in the things we are surrounded with.

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. Then they return to their baseline happiness. Then what are the secrets of keeping a marriage happy and satisfying?

• One vital secret behind happy and fulfilling marriages is how a couple responds to each other’s successes. If they revel in being happy at their counterpart’s successes, it creates a major uptick in their relationship satisfaction.

• So, if there’s good news to share, what matters is they are happy as if it were their own success, not the other person’s. 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 one’s strengths and virtues while minimizing weaknesses and flaws.

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

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

3. Ageing

• It may surprise you that youth and early adulthood are not the sunniest times of our lives.

• What research conclusively confirms is that 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 — which is the act of retrieving autobiographical memories.

• What reminiscing does is breed positive feelings and make the person feel more loved and protected. The more time the seniors spend remembering their old times, the more positivity they add to their mood, morale, and self-esteem. Find out how to grow old gracefully.

4. Religion

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

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

• Those who are religious are happier, healthier, and cope better when they fall into bad times. It may be because of the social support of their religious group.

5. Money

What about using money to buy happiness?

• Research shows that as long as you meet your basic needs, 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. Hedonic adaptation is the notion that after positive (or negative) events, followed by an increase in positive (or negative) feelings, people return to a relatively stable, baseline level of affect (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006).

• So, if you keep on amassing wealth for the sake of it, it will not make you happier and happier — but less and less happy. Because you rapidly get used to that wealth.

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

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

6. Experiences

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

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. We adapt to them a great deal faster. Note the word: Adapt. This is the hedonic adaptation we talked about earlier.

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 that 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?

• It does not take us long to start feeling that 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 in value with time, and every day we feel more joy having had them. Click To Tweet

7. Altruism

Altruism is when we act out of concern for another’s wellbeing expecting no 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 a 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.

Man Is A Goal Seeking Animal- Aristotle

• When we pursue our life goals, 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 is made up of many smaller goals.

• When we achieve these small goals, each makes us happier. It 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.

Happiness comes before success and drives it.

9. Gratitude

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

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

Eight Reasons Gratitude Makes You Happier:

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

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.

• Find out how to build your gratitude muscle!

12 Positive (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. Experts call these activities positive interventions. We could call them happiness interventions or happiness-boosing actions.

positive intervention (or happiness intervention) is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations.

These strategies do not involve making major shifts to one’s current life situations and can be used by anyone, whatever their genetic make-up. Lyubomirsky lays down the following twelve interventions to do to increase our happiness:

  1. Expressing gratitude
  2. Cultivating optimism
  3. Avoiding overthinking and social comparisons
  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 does not decree to you to start practicing all 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.

What Determines Your Happiness

According to research, half of our happiness is determined by our genes, and most of the rest by our intentional activities, while the remaining by our circumstances. Professor Lyubomirsky simplifies the research with a pie-chart that she calls happiness pizza.

Look at the picture below:

Happiness Pie Chart
What Determines Your Happiness: Happiness Pie-Chart

What The Happiness Pie Chart tells us is 50% of our happiness (the blue part in the figure) is determined by our genes, called the 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.

Sonja 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 happy people happy, and how to use that ken to raise the happiness of the general population.

In the preface, she writes: “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.”

Professor Lyubomirsky reveals in the opening pages this critical fact about happiness:

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

We talk more on this up next.

How Much Of Your Happiness Can 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 have got 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.

You can make yourself happier by 40% directly through your actions and thoughts. You have to concur that forty percent is one hefty figure. So much so that in fact, one of the book’s original titles was The 40 Percent Solution.

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

What Things Do Not 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. Such as:

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

Both are wrong.

How 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-question test Lyubomirsky and her colleagues devised for this is called the Subjective Happiness Scale. You could check out your level of general happiness here.

Rap Song Based On The How of Happiness

The 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. But why is this a book to read and re-read? (By the way, her name is pronounced as Son-yuh Lyu-bo-mirs-ky)

First, its author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from Stanford University, is one of the founding parents of the positive psychology movement. The knowledge you get from this book is authoritative, right from the source of origin.

Second, the book serves facts and claims on happiness that are scientifically accurate. Every suggestion and conclusion you find here has backing in psychological research. The claims in this book are all backed by empirical data.

Third, it is written so you can easily read, grasp, and remember. For one, all the knowledge in the book appears as three crisply divided parts: I. How to Attain Real and Lasting Happiness, II. Happiness Activities, III. Secrets to Abiding Happiness.

So if there’s one book to find out more about positive psychology and discover the strategies to get happier, then this is the book to go to.

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


  • Can you be happy after a breakup or divorce?

    Yes. 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.

  • Do you need a partner to be happy?

    No. While many believe not having a partner would make them miserable forever, 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.

  • Can you be happy only when you are rich and successful?

    Yes. 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 in what they do with that success.

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7 Steps To Change Any Habit Using Psychology

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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