Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #103: “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Dear kids,

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky is only one of several dozen similar books on positive psychology. Look over these notes to help you decide if this is your pick of the batch.

My Highlights:

  • Because 40 percent is that part of our happiness that it’s in our power to change through how we act and how we think, that portion representing the potential for increased lasting happiness that resides in all of us. It’s not a small number, and it’s not a huge number, but it’s a reasonable and realistic number.
  • The How of Happiness shows you how to apply that number to your own circumstances. However, instead of showing you how to move from the negative range toward a neutral point, the aim of most therapies and treatments for depression, I shall spotlight how to advance from your current (perhaps unrewarding) state (be it -8, -3, or +3) toward +6 or +8 or even higher.
  • In one study, the University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman taught a single happiness-enhancing strategy to a group of severely depressed people—that is, those whose depression scores put them in the most extremely depressed category. Although these individuals had great difficulty even leaving their beds, they were instructed to log on to a Web site and engage in a simple exercise. The exercise involved recalling and writing down three good things that happened every day—for example, “Rosalind called to say hello,” “I read a chapter of a book my therapist recommended,” and “The sun finally came out today.” Within fifteen days their depressions lifted from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed,” and 94 percent of them experienced relief.
  • Perhaps the most counterintuitive finding is that as the chart shows, only about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations—that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.
  • A great deal of science backs up this conclusion. For example, a well-known study demonstrated that the richest Americans, those earning more than ten million dollars annually, report levels of personal happiness only slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ.And although married people are happier than single ones, the effect of marriage on personal happiness is actually quite small; for example, in sixteen countries, 25 percent of married people and 21 percent of singles described themselves as “very happy.”
  • If you are currently depressed or if you’ve ever been depressed, you are not alone. Studies show that 15 percent of people in the United States (and 21 percent of women) will become clinically depressed at some point during their lifetimes.
  • Furthermore, the age at which people experience their first depressive episode has decreased dramatically during the last several decades.
  • The identical twins were extremely similar to each other in their happiness scores, and remarkably, the similarity was no smaller if the twins had been raised apart! The happier one identical twin was, the happier the other was—no matter whether they grew up under the same roof or on different coasts. Interestingly, however, regardless of whether they were raised together or apart, the happiness levels of the fraternal twins were completely uncorrelated.
  • If the New Zealanders with the short “bad” allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene were able to avoid highly stressful situations or to engage psychotherapists or supportive confidants when they anticipated stress, their genetic propensity for depression might never be triggered.
  • In order to express or not to express themselves, genes need a particular environment (e.g., a happy marriage or job layoff) or a particular behavior (e.g., seeking out social support). This means that no matter what your genetic predisposition, whether or not that predisposition is expressed is in your hands.
  • Davidson uses the procedure called electroencephalography (EEG) to measure a person’s brain activity. He finds that happy people, those who smile more, and who report themselves to be enthusiastic, alert, and engaged in life show a curious asymmetry in their brain activity; they have more activity in their left prefrontal cortex than in the right.
  • Spiritual people are relatively happier than nonspiritual people, have superior mental health, cope better with stressors, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs and alcohol less often, are physically healthier, and live longer lives.
  • An impressive study of physical activity was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999. The researchers recruited men and women fifty years old and over, all of them suffering from clinical depression, and divided them randomly into three groups . . . Aerobic exercise was just as effective at treating depression as was Zoloft, or as a combination of exercise and Zoloft.
  • Finally, surveys show, and large-scale randomized interventions confirm, that exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.



Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.


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