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Write a Discussion on All Things Happy

post your short responses to the following

1) What are the top things you learned from this week’s content (e.g., PowerPoint slides and the notes under the slides, videos, readings)? You can list one, two, or three things.

2) From what you learned, is there anything (You can list zero, one, two, or three things) that you would genuinely like to put into practice in your personal or work life? If so, what would that be and how would you do that? Be very specific and clear. 🙂

3) Feel free to share anything else that is in your pure heart to share. 🙂

Peter N. Stearns is the
provost and a professor
of history at George
Mason University.
History of
How the pursuit of contentment
has shaped the West’s culture
and economy by Peter N. Stearns
modern Russian adage
holds that “a person who
smiles a lot is either a
fool or an American.”
It’s true that when
McDonald’s arrived
in Russia, in 1990,
one of its first
tasks was to train
clerks to seem
cheerful. I’ve spent time since with Russian friends,
discussing cultural rules on showing happiness,
agreeing that differences remain.
The point here is not to disparage Russians. Most
East Asian cultures also have lower happiness expectations than Americans are accustomed to. Some
Latin American cultures tend in the other direction.
The point is that cultural variations on happiness are
considerable, contributing to the findings of international happiness polls that dot the contemporary
public opinion landscape.
Moreover, attitudes toward happiness don’t just
vary; they change. Danes, the current polls suggest,
are no longer so melancholy. Exploring the nature of
such change not only illuminates our own context
for happiness but also allows us to assess its advan104 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
Artwork Yue Minjun, The Massacre at Chios
2001, oil on canvas, 300 x 220 cm
January–February 2012 Harvard Business Review 105
U.S. Declaration
of Independence
declares that all
men have a right
to “the pursuit of
The obvious question is why, and while some
causes are pretty clear, we probably still fall short of a
fully satisfactory explanation. Components include,
certainly, the intellectual shift toward a higher valuation of matters in this world and a reduced commitment to traditional Christian staples such as original
sin—all part of the cultural environment created by
the Enlightenment. It’s important to stress that the
happiness surge was not antireligious; a key component was the new idea that being cheerful was pleasing to God. The 18th century also saw some measurable advances in human comfort for the middle
classes and above, ranging from better home heating to the availability of umbrellas to provide shelter
from the rain. (Only a few British traditionalists objected to the latter as undermining national character.) One historian has also noted the 18th century as
a time of improved dentistry, when people became
more willing to lift their lips in a smile; he argues
that the ambivalent smile of a Mona Lisa probably
reflected embarrassment at tooth decay. The several
shifts driving the happiness surge were powerful
enough to propel happiness into politics by century’s
end, with the American revolutionary commitment
to the pursuit of same.
Indeed, there seems to have been a bit of an
American twist on all this even early on. A British journalist in 1792 was surprised at “the good
humor of Americans,” and 40 years later another
noted that Americans seemed unwilling to complain, for the sympathy they might gain would be
outweighed by their friends’ disapproval. It was in
the 1830s that Harriet Martineau, often described as
the first female sociologist, professed amazement at
how often Americans tried to make her laugh: One
stranger “dropped some drolleries so new to me, and
so intense, that I was perplexed what to do with my
laughter.” The smiling American was becoming a ste-
The smiling American was
becoming a stereotype two
centuries ago.

106 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
tages and downsides. Without historical perspective,
American expectations seem so normal and so natural that they’re difficult to evaluate.
The fact is that the commitment to happiness in
Western culture is relatively modern. Until the 18th
century, Western standards encouraged, if anything,
a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match. As one dour Protestant put it,
God would encourage a person who “allowed no joy
or pleasure, but a kind of melancholic demeanor and
austerity.” This does not mean people were actually
unhappy—we simply cannot know that, because
cultural standards and personal temperament interact in complicated ways. But there is no question
that many people felt obliged to apologize for the
moments of happiness they did encounter. Sinful
humanity had best display a somewhat sorrowful
This changed dramatically with the 18th century
and the values of the Enlightenment. Alexander
Pope declaimed, “Oh happiness! our being’s end
and aim!” while one John Byrom urged that “it was
the best thing one could do to be always cheerful…
and not suffer any sullenness.” The charge here was
double-edged and has remained so. On the one hand,
it was now perfectly legitimate to seek happiness.
On the other, not being happy, or at least not seeming to be, was a problem to be avoided. Ordinary
people began writing about their interest “in enjoying happiness and independence.” Disasters, such
as the brutal yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia
in 1793, produced recommendations to the survivors
to keep up their spirits and avoid excessive grief.
The list of historians working on happiness is not
long, but those who’ve tackled some aspect of the
subject generally agree: At the level of rhetoric, at
least, a significant shift occurred in Western culture
around 250 years ago.
Idea in Brief
Today the Western world is caught up
in a culture of happiness, but it wasn’t
always so. It was only in the 18th century
that the values of the Enlightenment
ushered in the notion that happiness was
the attainment of a worthy life. Since
then the pursuit of happiness has gained
momentum and spread to every aspect
of behavior, from religion and politics to
work and parenting.
It’s important to trace
this steady encroachment of the happiness
imperative because it
reminds us that today’s
values are not givens
in the human condition.
Culture reflects choices,
and new choices can
change it.
It’s also important
to recognize that any
societal choice has both
good and bad consequences. When the goal
becomes happiness, the
idea arises that unhappiness is to be avoided
in ourselves, our families, and our workplaces.
Emotional states short
reotype two centuries ago, as a new nation sought to
with departed family members. This was an intrigujustify its existence by projecting superior claims to
ing redefinition of spiritual rewards, clearly designed
happiness. It was no accident that this same new na- to reduce the need for extensive fear or grief. Its logic,
tion, at this same point, quietly revolutionized the
in the context of the ascending culture of happiness,
approach to death by introducing the garden cem- helps explain its persistence in popular religious culetery, where people could gain a sense of content- ture to this day—even to the point where, in a recent
ment, if not happiness, as they contemplated the
funeral service, deceased family pets were assumed
end of life.
to be part of the celestial scene.
All of this constituted the first stage in the emerWith these various developments, the claim of
gence of modern Western happiness, but there were
happiness on the culture was established. But the
further stages, building even greater potency into
history was still not complete, for there was yet anthe culture that still claims us. During the 19th cen- other surge, particularly in the United States, from
tury, although the commitment to happiness in gen- the 1920s onward. A vast literature began to emerge
eral did not escalate, there were important applica- that stressed simultaneously the importance of betions to facets of daily life.
ing happy, the personal responsibility to gain happiThe new middle-class work ethic came close to
ness, and the methods available. Titles, over several
arguing that work should be a source of happiness. decades, included monuments like 14,000 Things to
There was some complexity here: Horatio Alger sto- Be Happy About, Happiness Is a Choice, and A Thouries of the beauties of work also pointed to higher sand Paths to Happiness (with claims that this was an
earnings and social mobility—not just intrinsic hap- “emerging science”). Targeted programs ultimately
piness—as rewards. But it was convenient for a rising
included Happiness for Black Women Only, The Ladclass to believe that working people had no reason
der Up: Secret Steps to Jewish Happiness, Gay Happinot to be happy and that laziness and bad habits dis- ness, and, for the emotional omnivore, Find Happirupted not only performance but also contentment.
ness in Everything You Do.
The happiness surge applied even more clearly
The push went beyond popular books and arto family life. Now that the family began to play a
ticles. The cultural commitment to happiness
decreasing economic role, as jobs moved out of the
promoted new efforts to associate work with haphome, it took on new emotional responsibilities. piness, through experiments in human relations
Wives and mothers were urged to maintain a cheer- techniques or just piped-in music. It inspired new
ful atmosphere in order to reward their hardworking
workplace standards that instructed white-collar
husbands and produce successful children. Moral- employees and salespeople in the centrality of
ists told husbands and wives alike to keep anger cheerfulness. It spawned new commercial empires
away from family life. The rising American divorce
such as the Walt Disney Company, whose corporate
rate of the later 19th century owed much to expecta- motto became “make people happy” and whose
tions that family reality often could not match—an- employees convinced customers that they were
other problem that has hardly disappeared.
already happy simply because they were in a DisAmericans also took the lead in efforts to rec- ney setting. It prompted “happy meals.” It spurred
oncile death with the demands for happiness. The
an advertising executive, Harvey Ball, to create in
idea gained ground that heaven was a happy place
1963 the yellow smiley face, which took off even in
marked by, among other things, blissful reunions
the wake of the Kennedy assassination and whose
of bliss become sources
of anxiety and are even
diagnosed as pathologies. That may lead to
choices that aren’t for
the best and, paradoxically, make a lot of
people more miserable.
The song
“Happy Birthday”
is composed.
January–February 2012 Harvard Business Review 107
Some experts argue that happiness
is an inborn trait, so urging a person
to become happier is like insisting
she become taller.
Smiley face is
annual licensing
fees exceed
$50 million by
the decade’s end.
annual licensing revenues exceeded $50 million
within the decade. It helps explain another American invention, the laugh track, to assure people they
were happy even when comedy fell short. Along
with technological improvements in photography,
it prompted new standards for public poses, with
smiles all around, whether at family outings or in
politicians’ mug shots.
The happiness imperative also spread to childhood, another area where cultural norms have become so powerful that it may be hard to imagine
historical contrast. Traditionally, childhood and
happiness were not generally associated. Again,
this does not mean that past children were less
happy, but it does mean that their happiness was
not obligatory, often not vividly remembered in
adulthood, and certainly not any parent’s responsibility. Even the Enlightenment turn to happiness
did not initially penetrate childhood, where work
and obedience continued to hold pride of place.
Only in the early 20th century were child-rearing
manuals filled with chapters on the happiness of
children. Among the exhortations: “Happiness
is as essential as food if a child is to develop into
normal manhood or womanhood”; “the purpose
of bringing-up in all its phases should be to make
the child as happy as possible.” There was some
tension in the new common wisdom between a
belief that children were naturally happy (all an
adult had to do was not spoil things) and a nagging
worry that childhood was actually more complicated (parents had to produce the necessary joy).
But there was no dissent from the belief that a key
responsibility of parents was to solidify the link
between childhood and happiness. Revealingly,
by the 1940s the concept of boredom shifted from
being an undesirable character trait, which good
children should avoid, to presenting a challenge
for parents. This was also the context in which, in
1926, the song “Happy Birthday” was composed,
becoming a family staple by the late 1930s—de-
108 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
spite, or perhaps because of, the gloom of the Great
The escalation of happiness built on the existing
culture, but there were other contributing factors.
The transition from a largely manufacturing to a
white-collar economy played a role, providing more
settings in which managers could see happiness as
a business advantage. Consumerism was central.
All sorts of advertisers (a newly distinct profession)
discovered that associating products with happiness
spurred sales. This is what most clearly explains why
the intensified happiness culture of the mid-20th
century has, in the main, persisted to the present day.
We’re still supposed to be smiling.
Understanding the happiness imperative as an
artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature
of the human condition, opens new opportunities to
understand central facets of our social and personal
experience. Some undeniable challenges emerge.
The comparative angle is intriguing, especially as
elements of the West’s happiness culture have been
widely shared. “Happy Birthday,” for example, has
been translated into all major languages, and birthday celebrations are now important in the middleclass consumer cultures of China and Abu Dhabi,
altering or even reversing prior traditions. Will a
happiness surge be part of globalization? We don’t
yet know—remember the less-smiling Russians—but
it’s a theme worth watching.
More important, whether globally or nationally:
What does the evolving culture have to do with actual happiness? Here, too, it’s not easy to say. Some
experts argue that happiness is an inborn trait, so
urging a person to become happier is like insisting
she become taller. This probably goes too far. Cultures that stress happiness likely do produce more
happy people, but the link is complex and fragile.
The historical evolution of our happiness culture also suggests limitations. We have seen that
the translation of happiness norms into family and
work expectations produces frustration and disap-
pointment when experience contradicts cultural
hyperbole. When too much is expected, less actual
satisfaction may result. New norms might also make
it harder to confront experiences, such as death,
where happiness is hard to find—another vulnerability of contemporary culture.
The happiness imperative certainly hinders exploration of the gray areas of modern experience,
and its compulsory quality can misfire. Here are the
two clearest downsides.
First, although the most obvious drawback of
the emphasis on happiness involves the gaps with
reality that can, paradoxically, create their own discontents, there’s also the risk that people will fail to
explore reasons for dissatisfaction because of pressure to exhibit good cheer. We may miss opportunities to improve situations, for example in work settings, because we assume that problems result from
personality and not from more-objective conditions.
Those risks suggest the need to cut through the pervasive happiness rhetoric at certain points.
Second, and at least as important, a culture saturated with happiness makes it difficult for people to
deal with sadness, in themselves and others. A sad
child is a comment on the parents—the source of
that modern scourge, the “unhappy childhood.” But
what of children who are sad or who go through periods of sadness? What are their acceptable outlets?
The same applies to adults. We know that at least a
quarter of depression diagnoses are mistakes, confusions of normal sadness with a pathological state.
Indeed, some depression may result from the difficulty of manifesting a more modest dose of sadness,
making it “easier” to drift into outright illness.
introduces the
Happy Meal.
EVERY CULTURAL system has drawbacks to go with
the advantages that facilitated its adoption in the
first place. Seeing a culture as the product of historical change is an invitation to step back, assess, and
then consider further change. We may not wish to
alter the happiness culture that modern history has
bequeathed us; its considerable problems may be
outweighed by the pleasure of having cheerful artifacts and smiling faces around us. But we can at least
consider the possibility of modification. In our happiness culture there might yet be, after a couple of
centuries of acceleration, room for improvement.
HBR Reprint R1201H
“I’ll be flying through a mountain soon, so I might lose you.”
January–February 2012 Harvard Business Review 109
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Artwork Yue Minjun, Untitled
2005, oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
The Science
The Smile
Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert is widely known for his 2006
best seller, Stumbling on Happiness. His work reveals, among other things,
the systematic mistakes we all make in imagining how happy (or miserable)
we’ll be. In this edited interview with HBR’s Gardiner Morse, Gilbert surveys
the field of happiness research and explores its frontiers.
HBR: Happiness research has become a hot topic
in the past 20 years. Why?
Gilbert: It’s only recently that we realized we could
marry one of our oldest questions—“What is the
nature of human happiness?”—to our newest way
of getting answers: science. Until just a few decades
ago, the problem of happiness was mainly in the
hands of philosophers and poets.
Psychologists have always been interested in
emotion, but in the past two decades the study of
emotion has exploded, and one of the emotions that
psychologists have studied most intensively is happiness. Recently economists and neuroscientists
joined the party. All these disciplines have distinct
but intersecting interests: Psychologists want to understand what people feel, economists want to know
what people value, and neuroscientists want to
know how people’s brains respond to rewards. Having three separate disciplines all interested in a single
topic has put that topic on the scientific map. Papers
on happiness are published in Science, people who
study happiness win Nobel prizes, and governments
all over the world are rushing to figure out how to
measure and increase the happiness of their citizens.
How is it possible to measure something as subjective as happiness?
Measuring subjective experiences is a lot easier than
you think. It’s what your eye doctor does when she
fits you for glasses. She puts a lens in front of your
eye and asks you to report your experience, and then
she puts another lens up, and then another. She uses
your reports as data, submits the data to scientific
analysis, and designs a lens that will give you perfect vision—all on the basis of your reports of your
subjective experience. People’s real-time reports are
very good approximations of their experiences, and
they make it possible for us to see the world through
their eyes. People may not be able to tell us how
happy they were yesterday or how happy they will
be tomorrow, but they can tell us how they’re feeling at the moment we ask them. “How are you?” may
be the world’s most frequently asked question, and
nobody’s stumped by it.
There are many ways to measure happiness. We
can ask people “How happy are you right now?” and
have them rate it on a scale. We can use magnetic
resonance imaging to measure cerebral blood flow,
or electromyography to measure the activity of the
January–February 2012 Harvard Business Review 85
Spotlight on Happiness
“smile muscles” in the face. But in most circumstances those measures are highly correlated, and
you’d have to be the federal government to prefer
the complicated, expensive measures over the simple, inexpensive one.
But isn’t the scale itself subjective? Your five might
be my six.
Imagine that a drugstore sold a bunch of cheap thermometers that weren’t very well calibrated. People
with normal temperatures might get readings other
than 98.6, and two people with the same temperature might get different readings. These inaccuracies could cause people to seek medical treatment
they didn’t need or to miss getting treatment they
did need. So buggy thermometers are sometimes
a problem—but not always. For example, if I brought
100 people to my lab, exposed half of them to a flu
virus, and then used those buggy thermometers
to take their temperatures a week later, the average temperature of the people who’d been exposed
would almost surely be higher than the average temperature of the others. Some thermometers would
underestimate, some would overestimate, but as
long as I measured enough people, the inaccuracies
would cancel themselves out. Even with poorly calibrated instruments, we can compare large groups of
A rating scale is like a buggy thermometer. Its
inaccuracies make it inappropriate for some kinds
of measurement (for example, saying exactly how
happy John was at 10:42 am on July 3, 2010), but it’s
perfectly appropriate for the kinds of measurements
most psychological scientists make.
What did all these happiness researchers discover?
Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people
who are in good romantic relationships are happier
than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier
than sick people. People who participate in their
churches are happier than those who don’t. Rich
people are happier than poor people. And so on.
That said, there have been some surprises. For
example, while all these things do make people
happier, it’s astonishing how little any one of them
matters. Yes, a new house or a new spouse will
make you happier, but not much and not for long.
As it turns out, people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy and how long that
happiness will last. They expect positive events to
86 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
make them much happier than those events actually
do, and they expect negative events to make them
unhappier than they actually do. In both field and
lab studies, we’ve found that winning or losing an
election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or failing
an exam—all have less impact on happiness than
people think they will. A recent study showed that
very few experiences affect us for more than three
months. When good things happen, we celebrate for
a while and then sober up. When bad things happen,
we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.
Why do events have such a fleeting effect on
One reason is that people are good at synthesizing
happiness—at finding silver linings. As a result, they
usually end up happier than they expect after almost
any kind of trauma or tragedy. Pick up any newspaper, and you’ll find plenty of examples. Remember
Jim Wright, who resigned in disgrace as Speaker of
the House of Representatives because of a shady
book deal? A few years later he told the New York
Times that he was “so much better off, physically,
financially, emotionally, mentally and in almost every other way.” Then there’s Moreese Bickham, who
spent 37 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary;
after his release he said, “I don’t have one minute’s
regret. It was a glorious experience.” These guys
appear to be living in the best of all possible worlds.
Speaking of which, Pete Best, the original drummer
for the Beatles, was replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962,
just before the Beatles got big. Now he’s a session
drummer. What did he have to say about missing out
on the chance to belong to the most famous band of
the 20th century? “I’m happier than I would have
been with the Beatles.”
One of the most reliable findings of the happiness studies is that we do not have to go running to
a therapist every time our shoelaces break. We have
a remarkable ability to make the best of things. Most
people are more resilient than they realize.
Aren’t they deluding themselves? Isn’t real happiness better than synthetic happiness?
Let’s be careful with terms. Nylon is real; it’s just not
natural. Synthetic happiness is perfectly real; it’s just
man-made. Synthetic happiness is what we produce
when we don’t get what we want, and natural happiness is what we experience when we do. They have
The Science Behind the Smile hbr.org
Employees are happiest
when they’re trying to
achieve goals that are
difficult but not out of reach.
different origins, but they are not necessarily different in terms of how they feel. One is not obviously
better than the other.
Of course, most folks don’t see it that way. Most
folks think that synthetic happiness isn’t as “good”
as the other kind—that people who produce it are
just fooling themselves and aren’t really happy.
I know of no evidence demonstrating that that’s the
case. If you go blind or lose a fortune, you’ll find that
there’s a whole new life on the other side of those
events. And you’ll find many things about that new
life that are quite good. In fact, you’ll undoubtedly
find a few things that are even better than what you
had before. You’re not lying to yourself; you’re not
delusional. You’re discovering things you didn’t
know—couldn’t know until you were in that new life.
You are looking for things that make your new life
better, you are finding them, and they are making
you happy. What is most striking to me as a scientist
is that most of us don’t realize how good we’re going
to be at finding these things. We’d never say, “Oh, of
course, if I lost my money or my wife left me, I’d find
a way to be just as happy as I am now.” We’d never
say it—but it’s true.
Photography: jason grow
Is being happy always desirable? Look at all the
unhappy creative geniuses—Beethoven, van Gogh,
Hemingway. Doesn’t a certain amount of unhappiness spur good performance?
Nonsense! Everyone can think of a historical example of someone who was both miserable and creative,
but that doesn’t mean misery generally promotes
creativity. There’s certainly someone out there who
smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be
90, but that doesn’t mean cigarettes are good for you.
The difference between using anecdotes to prove
a point and using science to prove a point is that in
science you can’t just cherry-pick the story that suits
you best. You have to examine all the stories, or at
least take a fair sample of them, and see if there are
more miserable creatives or happy creatives, more
miserable noncreatives or happy noncreatives. If
misery promoted creativity, you’d see a higher
percentage of creatives among the miserable than
among the delighted. And you don’t. By and large,
happy people are more creative and more productive. Has there ever been a human being whose misery was the source of his creativity? Of course. But
that person is the exception, not the rule.
Many managers would say that contented people
aren’t the most productive employees, so you want
to keep people a little uncomfortable, maybe a little anxious, about their jobs.
Managers who collect data instead of relying on
intuition don’t say that. I know of no data showing
that anxious, fearful employees are more creative
or productive. Remember, contentment doesn’t
mean sitting and staring at the wall. That’s what
people do when they’re bored, and people hate being bored. We know that people are happiest when
they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of
reach. Challenge and threat are not the same thing.
People blossom when challenged and wither when
threatened. Sure, you can get results from threats:
Tell someone, “If you don’t get this to me by Friday,
you’re fired,” and you’ll probably have it by Friday.
But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter
do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more
than he must. It would be much more effective to tell
your employee, “I don’t think most people could get
this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the
entire team.” Psychologists have studied reward and
punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.
January–February 2012 Harvard Business Review 87
So challenge makes people happy. What else do we
know now about the sources of happiness?
If I had to summarize all the scientific literature on
the causes of human happiness in one word, that
word would be “social.” We are by far the most social
species on Earth. Even ants have nothing on us. If
I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know
only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know
your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to
know about your social network—about your friends
and family and the strength of your bonds with them.
Beyond having rich networks, what makes us
happy day to day?
The psychologist Ed Diener has a finding I really like.
He essentially shows that the frequency of your positive experiences is a much better predictor of your
happiness than is the intensity of your positive experiences. When we think about what would make us
happy, we tend to think of intense events—going on
a date with a movie star, winning a Pulitzer, buying
a yacht. But Diener and his colleagues have shown
that how good your experiences are doesn’t matter
nearly as much as how many good experiences you
have. Somebody who has a dozen mildly nice things
happen each day is likely to be happier than somebody who has a single truly amazing thing happen.
So wear comfortable shoes, give your wife a big kiss,
sneak a french fry. It sounds like small stuff, and it is.
But the small stuff matters.
I think this helps explain why it’s so hard for us
to forecast our affective states. We imagine that one
or two big things will have a profound effect. But it
looks like happiness is the sum of hundreds of small
things. Achieving happiness requires the same approach as losing weight. People trying to lose weight
want a magic pill that will give them instant results.
Ain’t no such thing. We know exactly how people
lose weight: They eat less and exercise more. They
don’t have to eat much less or exercise much more—
they just have to do those things consistently. Over
time it adds up. Happiness is like that. The things
you can do to increase your happiness are obvious
and small and take just a little time. But you have to
do them every day and wait for the results.
What are those little things we can do to increase
our happiness?
They won’t surprise you any more than “eat less and
exercise more” does. The main things are to commit
to some simple behaviors—meditating, exercising,
88 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
The Future
Of Happiness
by Matthew Killingsworth
ou’d think it would
be easy to figure out
what makes us happy.
Until recently, though,
researchers have had
to rely mainly on people’s reports
about their average emotional
states over long periods of time
and on easily surveyed predictors
of happiness, such as demographic
variables. As a result, we know that
married or wealthy people are, on
average, happier than unmarried
or less-well-off people. But what
is it about being married or having
money that makes people happy?
Focusing on average emotional
states also smooths out shortterm fluctuations in happiness and
consequently diminishes our ability
to understand the causes of those
fluctuations. For example, how do
the moment-by-moment details of
a person’s day affect that person’s
We can now begin to answer
questions like these, thanks to
the smartphone. For an ongoing
research project called Track Your
Happiness, I have recruited more
than 15,000 people in 83 countries
to report their emotional states in
real time, using devices they carry
with them every day. I created an
iPhone web app that queries users
at random intervals, asking them
about their mood (respondents
slide a button along a scale that
ranges from “very bad” to “very
good”), what they are doing (they
can select from 22 options including commuting, working, exercising,
and eating), and factors such as
their level of productivity, the nature
of their environment, the amount
and quality of their sleep, and their
social interactions. Since 2009 I
on the job reduces
both happiness and
productivity. Managers
may want to look for
ways to help employees
stay focused.
have collected more than half a million data points—making this, to my
knowledge, the first-ever large-scale
study of happiness in daily life.
One major finding is that people’s
minds wander nearly half the time,
and this appears to lower their
mood. Wandering to unpleasant or
even neutral topics is associated
with sharply lower happiness; straying to positive topics has no effect
either way. The amount of mindwandering varies greatly depending
on the activity, from roughly 60% of
the time while commuting to 30%
when talking to someone or playing
a game to 10% during sex. But no
The Science Behind the Smile hbr.org
15,000 iphone
users in
83 countries
report their
emotional states
in real time
matter what people are doing, they
are much less happy when their
minds are wandering than when
their minds are focused.
All of this strongly suggests that
to optimize our emotional wellbeing, we should pay at least as
much attention to where our minds
are as to what our bodies are doing. Yet for most of us, the focus of
our thoughts isn’t part of our daily
planning. When you wake up on a
Saturday morning and ask, “What
am I going to do today?” the answer is usually about where you’ll
take your body—to the beach, to
the kids’ soccer practice, for a run.
You ought to also ask, “What am I
going to do with my mind today?”
A related stream of research
examines the relationship between
mind-wandering and productivity. Many managers, particularly
those whose employees do creative
knowledge work, may sense that
a certain amount of daydreaming
is a good thing, providing a mental
break and perhaps leading people
to reflect on related work matters.
Unfortunately, the data so far suggest that, in addition to reducing
happiness, mind-wandering on
the job reduces productivity. And
employees’ minds stray much more
than managers probably imagine—
about 50% of the workday—and almost always veer toward personal
concerns. Managers may want to
look for ways to help employees
stay focused, for the employees’
and the company’s sakes.
The data are also beginning to
paint a picture of variations in
happiness within an individual and
from one individual to the next. The
most striking finding here is that
happiness differs more from moment to moment than it does from
person to person. This suggests
that it’s not the stable conditions of
our lives, such as where we live or
whether we’re married, that are the
principal drivers of happiness; it
could be the small, everyday things
that count the most.
It also suggests that happiness
on the job may depend more on
our moment-to-moment experiences—our routine interactions
with coworkers, the projects we’re
involved in, our daily contributions—than on the stable conditions thought to promote happiness, such as a high salary or a
prestigious title. A priority of my
current and future research is to
deploy this tracking technology
in the workplace and, I hope, at
last reveal what actually makes
employees happy.
A Focused Mind
Is a Happy Mind
Participants were queried about mood
and mind-wandering during 22 activities.
The balls represent their activities and
thoughts. The farther to the right a ball is,
the happier people were, on average. The
larger the ball, the more frequently they
engaged in the activity or thought.
resting, sleeping
using home computer
commuting, traveling
grooming and self-care
listening to radio news
doing housework
watching television
shopping, running errands
taking care of children
praying, worshipping, meditating
preparing food
walking, taking a walk
listening to music
Happiness scale
Matthew Killingsworth is a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard
University. To participate in his study, go to trackyourhappiness.org.
652012 Harvard
95Review 89
Spotlight on Happiness
For decades psychologists
and economists have asked,
“Who’s happy?” But until now we
were working with pretty blunt tools.
what they are doing and how happy they are while
getting enough sleep—and to practice altruism. One
of the most selfish things you can do is help others. they are doing it. I think this kind of technology is
about to revolutionize our understanding of daily
Volunteer at a homeless shelter. You may or may
emotions and human well-being. (See the sidebar
not help the homeless, but you will almost surely
help yourself. And nurture your social connections. “The Future of Happiness Research.”)
Twice a week, write down three things you’re grateful for, and tell someone why. I know these sound
What are the new frontiers of happiness research?
like homilies from your grandmother. Well, your We need to get more specific about what we are meagrandmother was smart. The secret of happiness is
suring. Many scientists say they are studying happilike the secret of weight loss: It’s not a secret!
ness, but when you look at what they’re measuring,
you find they are actually studying depression or
life satisfaction. These things are related to happiIf there’s no secret, what’s left to study?
ness, of course, but they are not the same as happiThere’s no shortage of questions. For decades
psychologists and economists have been asking, ness. Research shows that people with children are
typically less happy on a moment-to-moment basis
“Who’s happy? The rich? The poor? The young? The
than people without children. But people who have
old?” The best we could do was divide people into
kids may feel fulfilled in a way that people without
groups, survey them once or maybe twice, and try to
determine if the people in one group were, on aver- kids do not. It doesn’t make sense to say that people
with kids are happier, or that people without kids are
age, happier than those in the others. The tools we
used were pretty blunt instruments. But now mil- happier; each group is happier in some ways and less
lions of people are carrying little computers in their happy in others. We need to stop painting our portrait of happiness with such a fat brush.
pockets—smartphones—and this allows us to collect
data in real time from huge numbers of people about
what they are doing and feeling from moment to mo- Will all this research ultimately make us happier?
ment. That’s never been possible before.
We are learning and will continue to learn how to
One of my collaborators, Matt Killingsworth, has
maximize our happiness. So yes, there is no doubt
built an experience-sampling application called
that the research has helped and will continue to
Track Your Happiness. He follows more than 15,000
help us increase our happiness. But that still leaves
people by iPhone, querying them several times a day
the big question: What kind of happiness should we
about their activities and emotional states. Are they want? For example, do we want the average happiat home? On a bus? Watching television? Praying?
ness of our moments to be as large as possible, or
How are they feeling? What are they thinking about? do we want the sum of our happy moments to be
With this technology, Matt’s beginning to answer a
as large as possible? Those are different things. Do
much better question than the one we’ve been ask- we want lives free of pain and heartache, or is there
ing for decades. Instead of asking who is happy, he
value in those experiences? Science will soon be
can ask when they are happy. He doesn’t get the an- able to tell us how to live the lives we want, but it
swer by asking, “When are you happy?”—because
will never tell us what kinds of lives we should want
frankly, people don’t know. He gets it by tracking
to live. That will be for us to decide.
people over days, months, and years and measuring HBR Reprint R1201E
90 Harvard Business Review January–February 2012
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Review of General Psychology
2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 111–131
Copyright 2005 by the Educational Publishing Foundation
1089-2680/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111
Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change
Sonja Lyubomirsky
Kennon M. Sheldon
University of California, Riverside
University of Missouri—Columbia
David Schkade
University of California, San Diego
The pursuit of happiness is an important goal for many people. However, surprisingly
little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased
and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of
genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on
the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness
level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness,
happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices. The authors then consider adaptation and dynamic processes to show why the
activity category offers the best opportunities for sustainably increasing happiness.
Finally, existing research is discussed in support of the model, including 2 preliminary
happiness-increasing interventions.
The pursuit of happiness holds an honored
position in American society, beginning with
the Declaration of Independence, where it is
promised as a cherished right for all citizens.
Today, the enduring U.S. obsession with how to
be happy can be observed in the row upon row
of popular psychology and self-help books in
any major bookstore and in the millions of
copies of these books that are sold. Indeed,
many social contexts in the United States have
the production of happiness and positive feelings as their primary purpose, and questions
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside; Kennon M. Sheldon, Department of Psychology, University of Missouri—Columbia;
David Schkade, Rady School of Management, University of
California, San Diego.
This work was supported in part by grants from the
Positive Psychology Network. We are grateful to Linda
Houser-Marko, Kathleen Jamir, and Chris Tkach for conducting library research and to Shelley Taylor, David Sherman, and the other members of Psychology 421 for valuable
comments on a draft.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Department of Psychology,
University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, or Kennon
M. Sheldon, Department of Psychological Sciences, 112
McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO
65211. E-mail: sonja@citrus.ucr.edu or sheldonk@missouri
such as “Are you happy?” and “Are you having
fun?” fit nearly every occasion (Markus &
Kitayama, 1994). Not surprisingly, the majority
of U.S. residents rate personal happiness as very
important (Diener, Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995;
Triandis, Bontempo, Leung, & Hui, 1990) and
report thinking about happiness at least once
every day (Freedman, 1978). Furthermore, the
pursuit of happiness is no longer just a North
American obsession, but instead it is becoming
ever more global as people seek to fulfill the
promises of capitalism and political freedom
(Diener et al., 1995; Freedman, 1978; Triandis
et al., 1990). It seems that nearly all people
believe, or would like to believe, that they can
move in an “upward spiral” (Sheldon & HouserMarko, 2001) toward ever greater personal
Is the pursuit of happiness merely a bourgeois
concern, a symptom of Western comfort and
self-centeredness, a factor that has no real impact on psychological adjustment and adaptation? The empirical evidence suggests that this
is not the case. Indeed, a number of researchers
and thinkers have argued that the ability to be
happy and contented with life is a central criterion of adaptation and positive mental health
(e.g., Diener, 1984; Jahoda, 1958; Taylor &
Brown, 1988). Bolstering this notion, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues recently com-
piled evidence showing that happiness has numerous positive byproducts that appear to benefit individuals, families, and communities
(Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2004; see also
Fredrickson, 2001). Furthermore, Lyubomirsky
et al.’s analysis revealed that happy people gain
tangible benefits in many different life domains
from their positive state of mind, including
larger social rewards (higher odds of marriage
and lower odds of divorce, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions; e.g., Harker & Keltner, 2001; Marks &
Fleming, 1999; Okun, Stock, Haring, & Witter,
1984), superior work outcomes (greater creativity, increased productivity, higher quality of
work, and higher income; e.g., Estrada, Isen, &
Young, 1994; Staw, Sutton, & Pelled, 1995),
and more activity, energy, and flow (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Wong, 1991).
Further supporting the argument that subjective happiness may be integral to mental and
physical health, happy people are more likely to
evidence greater self-control and self-regulatory
and coping abilities (e.g., Aspinwall, 1998;
Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Keltner & Bonanno, 1997), to have a bolstered immune system
(e.g., Dillon, Minchoff, & Baker, 1985; Stone et
al., 1994), and even to live a longer life (e.g.,
Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Ostir,
Markides, Black, & Goodwin, 2000). Also,
happy people are not just self-centered or selfish; the literature suggests that happy individuals instead tend to be relatively more cooperative, prosocial, charitable, and “other-centered”
(e.g., Isen, 1970; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Williams & Shiaw, 1999).
In summary, happy individuals appear more
likely to be flourishing people, both inwardly
and outwardly. Thus, we argue that enhancing
people’s happiness levels may indeed be a worthy scientific goal, especially after their basic
physical and security needs are met. Unfortunately, however, relatively little scientific support exists for the idea that people’s happiness
levels can change for the better. For example,
the happiness-boosting techniques proposed in
the self-help literature generally have limited
grounding in scientific theory and even less
empirical confirmation of their effectiveness
(Norcross et al., 2000). Consider a representative best seller, You Can Be Happy No Matter
What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, by Carlson (1997). Do the five princi-
ples work? Do some work better than others?
Do the principles work better for some people
than for others? Are any positive effects of the
principles due, ultimately, to placebo effects? If
the book actually helps people “get happier,”
does the happiness boost last? Although it is
possible that some of the advice given in this
and other similar books could well be appropriate and effective, the authors provide almost no
empirical research in support of their claims.
One receives little more guidance from contemporary academic psychology. Of course, research psychologists have identified many predictors of people’s happiness or subjective wellbeing. For example, well-being has been shown
to be associated with a wide variety of factors,
including demographic status (e.g., Argyle,
1999; Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Myers, 2000), personality traits and attitudes (e.g.,
Diener & Lucas, 1999), and goal characteristics
(e.g., McGregor & Little, 1998). However, a
limitation of previous research is that the vast
majority of studies have been cross sectional
and have reported between-subjects effects
rather than investigating well-being longitudinally and examining within-subject effects. In
addition, very few happiness intervention studies have been conducted. Thus, researchers still
know surprisingly little about how to change
well-being, that is, about the possibility of “becoming happier.” Doubtless, part of the reason
for this neglect is the difficulty of conducting
longitudinal and intervention studies. The problem is further compounded by the tendency of
applied mental health researchers to focus on
pathology rather than on positive mental health
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and by
the thorny issues raised when theorists speculate
on how people “should” live their lives to maximize their potential for happiness (Schwartz,
2000). However, we believe the principal reason for the neglect of this question is the considerable scientific pessimism over whether it is
even possible to effect sustainable increases in
Historical Sources of Pessimism
Three considerations serve to illustrate the
depth of this pessimism. First is the idea of a
genetically determined set point (or set range)
for happiness. Lykken and Tellegen (1996)
have provided evidence, based on twin studies
and adoption studies, that the heritability of
well-being may be as high as 80% (although a
more widely accepted figure is 50%; Braungart,
Plomin, DeFries, & Fulker, 1992; Tellegen et
al., 1988; cf. Diener et al., 1999). Whatever the
exact coefficient, its large magnitude suggests
that for each person there is indeed a chronic or
characteristic level of happiness. Consistent
with this idea, Headey and Wearing (1989)
found, in a four-wave panel study, that participants tended to keep returning to their own
baselines over time (see also Suh, Diener, &
Fujita, 1996). Thus, although there may be substantial variation around this baseline level in
the short term, in the long term people perhaps
cannot help but return to their set point, or to the
middle of their set range: “What goes up must
come down” (a more detailed description of the
happiness set point is provided later).
A second and closely related source of pessimism comes from the literature on personality
traits. Traits are cognitive, affective, and behavioral complexes that are, by definition, consistent across situations and across the life span
and therefore may account for part of the stability of the set point. In support of the latter
assumption, McCrae and Costa (1990) have
shown impressive long-term stability for the
“Big Five” traits, including the two traits most
closely related to well-being: neuroticism and
extraversion. Specifically, people tend to maintain the same rank ordering in their levels of
worry, rumination, and guilt, as well as in their
levels of social engagement, enthusiasm, and
self-confidence. Because of the close relation
between psychological well-being and these
personality characteristics, McCrae and Costa
argued that people also tend to maintain the
same relative level of happiness over time (see
also Costa, McCrae, & Zonderman, 1987; Diener & Lucas, 1999).
A third source of pessimism arises from the
concept of the hedonic treadmill (Brickman &
Campbell, 1971), which suggests that any gains
in happiness are only temporary, because humans so quickly adapt to change (see also Kahneman, 1999; Tversky & Griffin, 1991). Thus,
although new circumstances may temporarily
cause people to become happier or sadder, they
rapidly adjust, and the effect of these new circumstances on happiness then diminishes
quickly or even disappears entirely. For example, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman
(1978) showed that, after 1 year, lottery winners
were no happier than controls, and furthermore
recent paralysis victims were not as unhappy as
one would expect. Further evidence of hedonic
adaptation comes from findings of remarkably
small correlations between happiness and
wealth (Diener & Lucas, 1999) and Myers’s
(2000) observation that while U.S. citizens’ personal income has more than doubled in the
past 50 years, their happiness levels have remained the same. The notion of an individual
fighting against the effects of adaptation brings
to mind an image of a pedestrian walking up a
descending escalator. Although the improving
circumstances of her life may propel her upward
toward ever greater happiness, the process of
adaptation forces her back to her initial state.
Together, these concepts and findings suggest
that trying to become happier may be as futile as
trying to become taller (Lykken & Tellegen,
1996). Indeed, some have argued that pursuing
happiness may backfire altogether, if the pursuit
becomes a conscious “extrinsic” goal that distracts people from enjoying the moment
(Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein, in press; see
also Sheldon, 2004). Moreover, striving for
happiness may inevitably result in deep disappointment for many people. From this perspective, rather than seeking an upward spiral,
maybe people would be better off simply accepting their current personality and happiness
levels (McCrae & Costa, 1994). In Zen terms,
perhaps one should try to transcend the pursuit
of happiness rather than trying to maximize it
(Gaskins, 1999). Indeed, a number of philosophical traditions embrace the notion that happiness should not be increased beyond an ideal
level, one akin to a “Golden Mean” (Aristotle,
1974) between agony and ecstasy. To be sure,
most people would undoubtedly reject an unrestrained, ceaseless pursuit of well-being.
Present Sources of Optimism
Is the pursuit of happiness futile? We believe
not. Despite the seemingly compelling reasons
we have listed for pessimism regarding attempts
to elevate levels of well-being, there are also
compelling reasons for optimism. In the following, we briefly describe four sources of optimism, returning to consider some of them in
greater detail later. First, some researchers have
had success, albeit limited and short term, in
using interventions to increase happiness (e.g.,
Fava, 1999; Fordyce, 1977, 1983, Lichter,
Haye, & Kammann, 1980; Sheldon, Kasser,
Smith, & Share, 2002). The potential of happiness-enhancing interventions is further reflected
in emerging research in the positive psychology
tradition demonstrating that practicing certain
virtues, such as gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), forgiveness (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000), and thoughtful selfreflection (King, 2001; Lyubomirsky, Sousa, &
Dickerhoof, 2004), can bring about enhanced
well-being. Furthermore, research documenting
the long-term effectiveness of cognitive and
behavioral strategies to combat negative affect
and depression has encouraging implications
for the possibility of elevating long-term happiness (e.g., Gloaguen, Cottraux, Cucherat, &
Blackburn, 1998; Jacobson et al., 1996).
Second, many different motivational and attitudinal factors have been linked to well-being,
factors that are presumably amenable to some
volitional control. Examples of possible motivational factors include the successful pursuit of
life goals that are intrinsic in content (e.g.,
Kasser & Ryan, 1996); concordant with a person’s interests, motives, and values (Brunstein,
Schultheiss, & Grassman, 1998; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995); and internally consistent (e.g., Emmons & King, 1988;
Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). Examples of potentially controllable attitudinal factors include the
tendency to take an optimistic perspective on
one’s life situations (e.g., DeNeve & Cooper,
1998; McCrae & Costa, 1986), the inclination
to avoid social comparisons and contingent selfevaluations (e.g., Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997),
and the tendency to feel a sense of optimism or
efficacy regarding one’s life (Bandura, 1997;
Scheier & Carver, 1993; Seligman, 1991; Taylor & Brown, 1988).
A third reason for optimism is provided by
recent findings that older people tend to be
somewhat happier than younger people
(Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001; Diener &
Suh, 1998; Roberts & Chapman, 2000; Sheldon
& Kasser, 2001). Specifically, both cross-sectional and longitudinal work has shown that
older persons report higher life satisfaction and
lower negative affect. Although these main effects do not always emerge, they are observed
frequently enough to suggest that greater happiness can indeed be achieved over time, not
just by a few people but perhaps by the majority
of people. Indeed, Carstensen’s (1995) socioemotional selectivity theory suggests that older
people learn to structure their lives and pursue
particular goals that maximize positive emotions, consistent with the proposal that people
can learn to sustainably increase their wellbeing. Further supporting this notion are Sheldon and Kasser’s (2001) results, which showed
that age-related increases in well-being are in
part mediated by volitional changes, including
older people’s ability to select more enjoyable
and self-appropriate goals.
Yet another reason why genes are not necessarily destiny is that they appear to influence
happiness indirectly, that is, by influencing the
kinds of experiences and environments one has
or seeks to have. Thus, unwanted effects of
genes could be minimized by active efforts to
steer oneself away from situations that detract
from well-being or by avoiding being enticed
toward maladaptive behaviors (Lykken, 2000;
Lyubomirsky, 2001). In addition, it is worth
noting that heritability coefficients describe covariations, not mean levels. Furthermore, even a
high heritability coefficient for a particular trait
(such as happiness) does not rule out the possibility that the mean level of that trait for a
specific population can be raised. Under the
right conditions, perhaps anyone can become
happier, even if her or his rank ordering relative
to others remains stable.
To summarize, it appears there is a paradox:
Some theoretical perspectives and empirical
data suggest that happiness can be increased,
whereas other theories and data imply that it
cannot. How can these conflicting perspectives
on the possibility of happiness enhancement be
resolved? Also, if enhanced happiness is indeed
possible, what kinds of circumstances, activities, or habits of mind are most likely to bring
gains, especially gains that can be maintained?
Model of Happiness
Accordingly, the primary question addressed
in this article is the following: Through what
mechanisms, if any, can a chronic happiness
level higher than the set point be achieved and
sustained? To this end, we describe the architecture of sustainable happiness. The integrative model of happiness we present accommodates the role of both personality/genetic and
circumstantial/demographic factors in happiness. However, it also goes beyond these crosssectional or concurrent factors to incorporate
dynamic, time-sensitive factors. This extension
allows the question of within-subject change in
well-being, and maintained change, to be addressed. Most important, the model incorporates the role of motivational and attitudinal
factors, consistent with the assumption that happiness can be actively pursued. We attempt to
show that certain types of intentional activities
indeed offer ways to achieve sustainable
changes in well-being, despite the counteracting
effects of adaptation.
In the sections to follow, we first provide a
working definition of chronic happiness. Then
we define the three factors that affect it (genetic
set point, circumstances, and activities) and argue that intentional activities offer the best potential route to higher and sustainable levels of
happiness. Subsequently, we consider some
more complex issues pertaining to the achievement of sustainable well-being via intentional
activity, such as the role of person–activity fit,
optimal timing and variety of activity, and the
supportive role of sustained effort and positive habits. Then, in the final section of the
article, we describe several preliminary efforts
to increase happiness, based on our model,
and discuss the nature of effective happiness
Defining Happiness
Here we define happiness as it is most often
defined in the literature, that is, in terms of
frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction,
and infrequent negative affect. These three constructs are the three primary components of
subjective well-being, according to Diener and
colleagues (for reviews, see Diener, 1984, 1994;
Diener et al., 1999). Supporting the legitimacy
of considering them as indicators of the same
underlying construct, we find that the measures
are highly correlated and typically yield a single
factor after negative affect has been recoded
(Sheldon & Kasser, 1998, 2001; Sheldon &
Lyubomirsky, 2004). To refer to this group of
measures, we use the term happiness or subjective well-being, although we also discuss mood
and life satisfaction at times according to the
specific ideas and data being presented.
It is important to note as well that we use a
subjectivist definition of happiness, one that
commonly relies on people’s self-reports. We
believe this is appropriate and even necessary
given our view that happiness must be defined
from the perspective of the person. In other
words, happiness is primarily a subjective phenomenon for which the final judge should be
“whoever lives inside a person’s skin” (Myers
& Diener, 1995, p. 11; see also Diener, 1994).
However, the fact that the judgment of happiness is necessarily subjective does not mean that
influences on that judgment cannot be studied
empirically; for example, researchers might investigate the effects of factors such as a person’s recent experiences of positive emotion
(Frijda, 1999), the frame in which the question
is presented (Larsen & Fredrickson, 1999), the
meaning that the person ascribes to the question
(Schwarz & Strack, 1999), and the person’s
sense of making satisfactory progress toward
life goals at the time of the judgment (Carver &
Scheier, 1990). We consider some of these factors in greater detail in a later section. Finally,
the fact that self-reported happiness is subjective does not mean that it is unrelated to relatively more “objective” variables. For example,
research has shown significant convergence of
self-reported well-being with peer and spouse
reports of well-being (e.g., Lyubomirsky &
Lepper, 1999; Sandvik, Diener, & Seidlitz,
1993), with recall of particular types of events
(e.g., Seidlitz, Wyer, & Diener, 1997), with
smiling behavior (e.g., Harker & Keltner,
2001), and with physiological responses (e.g.,
Lerner, Taylor, Gonzalez, & Stayn, 2002).
Chronic Happiness Level
Our primary focus in this article is on a
person’s characteristic level of happiness during
a particular period in his or her life, which we
term the chronic happiness level. We define
happiness this way because we wish to identify
a quantity that is more enduring than momentary or daily happiness but that is also somewhat
malleable over time and, thus, amenable to
meaningful pursuit. According to this definition, although it is possible to alter one’s
chronic happiness level, it is much more difficult to do so than to alter one’s happiness level
at a particular moment or on a particular day.
Operationally, one might define a person’s
chronic happiness level in terms of his or her
retrospective summary judgments regarding his
or her mood and satisfaction during some recent
period (such as the past 2, 6, or 12 months) or as
the average of momentary judgments of mood
and satisfaction made at several times during
the selected period. It is worth adding, however,
that people may vary in their “hedonic profiles,”
such that two individuals with similar chronic
happiness levels might differ in their relative
levels of contentment with life versus their relative frequency of experiencing positive and
negative mood states.
Determinants of the Chronic Happiness
We focus on three primary types of factors
that we believe causally affect the chronic happiness level, namely, the set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity. We focus on
these three factors because they have historically received the majority of attention in the
well-being literature, providing a substantial research base. We also focus on this three-factor
distinction because it allows us to address several important issues and paradoxes, such as the
question of whether it is even possible to “become happier” given strong genetic influences
on happiness, the question of why past wellbeing research has revealed such weak associations between demographic/circumstantial
variables and happiness, and the question of
how a person might appropriately take action to
“pursue” happiness.
Figure 1 provides an illustration of the ap-
Figure 1. Three primary factors influencing the chronic
happiness level.
proximate percentage of the variance that each
of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research.
As can be seen in the pie chart, existing evidence suggests that genetics account for approximately 50% of the population variation (Braungart et al., 1992; Lykken & Tellegen, 1996;
Tellegen et al., 1988), and circumstances account for approximately 10% (Argyle, 1999;
Diener et al., 1999). This leaves as much as
40% of the variance for intentional activity,
supporting our proposal that volitional efforts
offer a promising possible route to longitudinal
increases in happiness. In other words, changing
one’s intentional activities may provide a happiness-boosting potential that is at least as large
as, and probably much larger than, changing
one’s circumstances. In the following, we provide a definition of each factor, briefly consider
whether and how changing that factor can lead
to changes in people’s chronic well-being, and
discuss whether such changes may be sustainable over the long term, that is, whether the
forces of hedonic adaptation can be counteracted by that factor.
Happiness Set Point
We assume that an individual’s chronic happiness level is in part determined by her or his
set point, which is defined as the central or
expected value within the person’s set range.
The happiness set point is genetically determined and is assumed to be fixed, stable over
time, and immune to influence or control. Consistent with this assumption, twin studies
(Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Tellegen et al.,
1988), long-term panel studies (Headey &
Wearing, 1989), and studies of the effects of life
events on well-being (Brickman et al., 1978) all
indicate substantial long-term stability in happiness. For example, Lykken and Tellegen
(1996) assessed well-being in twins at 20 years
of age and then again at 30 years of age. The
test–retest correlation was a considerable .50.
Even more important, the cross-twin, cross-time
correlation for the happiness of monozygotic
twins was .40 (or 80% of the test–retest correlation), suggesting that the heritability of the
“stable” component of happiness is approximately .80. In contrast, the cross-twin, crosstime correlation for dizygotic twins was close to
zero (.07). Other studies, although differing in
their estimates of heritability, have consistently
shown that monozygotic twins exhibit considerably more similar patterns of happiness
change than do dizygotic twins, providing converging support that the variance in adult happiness is in large part determined genetically.
The set point probably reflects relatively immutable intrapersonal, temperamental, and affective personality traits, such as extraversion,
arousability, and negative affectivity, that are
rooted in neurobiology (e.g., Ashby, Isen, &
Turken, 1999; Davidson, 1999; Depue & Collins, 1999; Gray, 1990; Kagan, 2003; Robinson,
Emde, & Corley, 2001), are highly heritable
(Tellegen et al., 1988), and change little over
the life span (McCrae & Costa, 1990). For example, Kagan has followed children from 4
months to 11 years of age and shown that sociability in 11-year olds can be traced to a
particular type of infant temperament (called
“low reactive”) that appears to involve a distinct
neurochemical profile. Other writers, including
Gray and Depue, have also compiled persuasive
evidence for the neurobiological underpinnings
of personality. This rapidly growing body of
research supports the set point theory of personality and affect.
Implications of the Set Point for
Sustainable Increases in Chronic
The preceding analysis implies that one’s
chronic happiness during a particular life period
can be increased, but not by changing one’s set
point, because by definition it is constant. In
other words, although it is possible that future
scientists will learn how to alter people’s basic
temperaments and dispositions, at present it appears that focusing on the set point is not a
fruitful avenue for happiness increase. Again,
however, one can posit that nongenetic factors
also influence a person’s chronic happiness
level, helping to determine whether the person
falls in the lower or upper portion of his or her
potential range at a particular time. The remaining variables in the model are designed to represent these other factors.
This category consists of happiness-relevant
circumstantial factors, that is, the incidental but
relatively stable facts of an individual’s life.
Happiness-relevant circumstances may include
the national, geographical, and cultural region
in which a person resides, as well as demographic factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity (see Diener et al., 1999, for a review). Circumstantial factors also include the individual’s
personal history, that is, life events that can
affect his or her happiness, such as having experienced a childhood trauma, being involved in
an automobile accident, or winning a prestigious award. Finally, circumstantial factors include life status variables such as marital status,
occupational status, job security, income,
health, and religious affiliation.
Again, previous cross-sectional research has
linked all of the circumstantial factors just described to subjective well-being (Diener et al.,
1999). For example, empirical evidence shows
that people who are paid more are relatively
happier (e.g., Diener, Sandvik, Seidlitz, & Diener, 1993) and that middle-class individuals are
somewhat happier than working-class individuals (e.g., Warr & Payne, 1982). Married people
are happier than those who are single, divorced,
or widowed (e.g., Mastekaasa, 1994), even in
cultures as diverse as those of Belarus and Spain
(Diener, Gohm, Suh, & Oishi, 2000). Findings
also reveal that religiously committed people
are relatively more likely to rate themselves as
“very happy” (Gallup, 1984) and that, not surprisingly, healthy people, especially older ones,
declare themselves to be slightly happier than
sick people (e.g., Okun et al., 1984).
However, as suggested earlier, all circumstances combined account for only 8% to 15%
of the variance in happiness levels (Argyle,
1999; Diener et al., 1999). These relatively
weak associations have been deemed surprising
and paradoxical, given well-being researchers’
initial expectations that circumstantial factors
such as income and physical health would be
strongly related to happiness (Diener et al.,
1999). We believe that these counterintuitively
small effects can be largely accounted for by
hedonic adaptation and the fact that people
adapt rapidly to new circumstances and life
events. This appears to be the case because
adaptation—whether it is sensory (e.g., to a foul
odor or a heavy weight; Brown, 1953), physiological (e.g., to very hot or cold temperatures;
Dar, Ariely, & Frank, 1995), or hedonic (e.g., to
a salary raise; Brickman et al., 1978; Parducci,
1995)— occurs in response to stimuli that are
constant or repeated. By definition, constancy is
a feature of most circumstantial changes.
Implications of Circumstances for
Sustainable Increases in Chronic
Of the different types of circumstances, life
status variables in particular seem to offer some
potential for increasing chronic happiness, in
that individuals often have considerable control
over them. For example, a college football
player may sign a lucrative NFL contract, a
middle-aged divorcee may remarry, or a retired
couple may move to Florida to a condominium
with a view, all becoming happier as a result.
Will such new happiness last, however? Perhaps not, because, as mentioned earlier, hedonic
adaptation tends to shuttle people back to their
starting point following any positive circumstantial change. For example, Headey and
Wearing (1989) found in their four-wave panel
study that positive and negative events (e.g.,
“made lots of new friends,” “got married,” “experienced serious problems with children,” or
“became unemployed”) influenced life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect as
would be expected but that people kept returning to their original baselines. And Schkade and
Kahneman (1998) revealed that although “living in California” is a seductive notion for
many, it does not actually make people any
happier in the long run. Furthermore, Lucas,
Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2003) showed
that, for most people, the life satisfaction benefits derived from getting married tended to fade
over the years. Thus, although one may gain a
temporary “boost” by moving to a new region,
increasing one’s income level, or changing
one’s appearance, such boosts will probably not
last, because people tend to adapt to constant
circumstances. Other reasons why circumstantial changes may prove ineffectual for permanently increasing happiness include the fact that
circumstantial changes can be costly (e.g., in
terms of money, resources, and time) and, in
many cases, impractical or even impossible.
Also, once a realistic “ceiling” of positive circumstances is reached, it may be difficult to
improve matters further.
In short, the data suggest that changes in
circumstances have limited potential for pro-
ducing sustainable changes in chronic happiness. Although this strategy may work in the
short term, it probably will not work in the long
term. Of course, if people have not achieved
basic subsistence and security, then it is logical
for them to attend to these circumstances and
basic needs first, before focusing on maximizing their happiness. However, we assume that,
at best, satisfying basic needs can move people
only up to their set point, not beyond.
Intentional Activity
Now we turn to the third and arguably most
promising means of altering one’s happiness
level: intentional activity. This is a very broad
category that includes the wide variety of things
that people do and think in their daily lives.
Obviously, humans are very active creatures,
with innumerable behaviors, projects, and concerns to which they devote energy. By “intentional,” we mean discrete actions or practices in
which people can choose to engage (although
the choice to initiate the activity may have become habitual, as discussed in a later section).
We also assume that intentional activities require some degree of effort to enact. That is, the
person has to try to do the activity; it does not
happen by itself. Indeed, this point touches on
one of the critical distinctions between the category of activity and the category of life circumstances; that is, circumstances happen to
people, and activities are ways that people act
on their circumstances.
There is good reason to believe that intentional activity can influence well-being. For example, some types of behavioral activity, such
as exercising regularly or trying to be kind to
others, are associated with well-being (e.g.,
Keltner & Bonanno, 1997; Magen & Aharoni,
1991), as are some types of cognitive activity,
such as reframing situations in a more positive
light or pausing to count one’s blessings (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; King, 2001; Seligman, 1991), and some kinds of volitional activity, such as striving for important personal goals
(Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001) or devoting
effort to meaningful causes (M. Snyder &
Omoto, 2001). Notably, it is impossible to fully
separate behavioral, cognitive, and volitional
activity; still, we believe the distinction is useful, and we continue to use it throughout the
Implications of Intentional Activity for
Sustainable Increases in Chronic
Again, it appears that increasing one’s set
point and changing one’s life circumstances are
not fruitful avenues for sustainable increases in
chronic happiness. What, if anything, can provide such an avenue? In the following, we argue
that intentional behavioral, cognitive, or volitional activity offers the best potential route.
Some work has already investigated the impact
of adopting new behaviors on longitudinal wellbeing, showing, for example, that faithfully engaging in a new exercise program positively
boosts people’s mood and vitality and can even
maintain the boosts for as long as 6 months
(e.g., Ransford & Palisi, 1996; Stewart et al.,
1997). Although little work has directly investigated the longitudinal effects of changing
one’s cognitive attitudes and practices on enhanced well-being, the general success of cognitive– behavioral therapy in reducing suffering
(Gloaguen et al., 1998) and recent work indicating positive effects of prompting people to
practice positive psychological “virtues” such
as gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003),
hope (C. R. Snyder, Ilardi, Michael, & Cheavens, 2000), and forgiveness (McCullough et al.,
2000) suggest that cognitive activity offers
many excellent possibilities for happiness interventions (Fordyce, 1983).
Turning to the third type of intentional activity, recent longitudinal studies have focused
specifically on volitional activity as a producer
of enhanced well-being (see Sheldon, 2002, for
a review). In such studies, students are typically
asked to pursue self-generated personal goals
over the course of a semester. High levels of
goal progress or attainment consistently predict
increased well-being (i.e., higher positive affect
and life satisfaction and lower negative mood)
from the beginning to the end of the semester,
whereas low levels of progress predict reduced
well-being (Brunstein, 1993; Sheldon, 2002).
Specifically, Sheldon’s longitudinal research in
this area (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995, 1998) has shown that
well-being increases are most likely when a
person chooses and attains self-concordant
goals, that is, goals that “fit” the person (as
described subsequently). This work has also
highlighted one potential mediator from successful volitional activity to enhanced well-being, namely, accumulations of positive daily
experiences along the way. The question of
what other proximal factors may mediate
changes in chronic happiness is addressed in
more detail in a later section.
Notably, these studies do not extend beyond a
single span of time. Thus, they do not directly
address the crucial question raised by the current article: whether gains in well-being last.
Although Headey and Wearing’s important
(1989) work suggests that gains in happiness do
not last, notably, their study focused only on life
events (“circumstances,” in our model) and did
not take intentional activity into direct account.
Recently, Sheldon and Houser-Marko (2001)
addressed the question of sustainability by examining the effects of goal attainment on emotional well-being over two consecutive semesters. Consistent with earlier studies, they found
that students who attained their personal goals
during the first semester of their freshman year
experienced enhanced adjustment and emotional well-being at the end of that semester.
More important, they found that students could
maintain their enhanced level of well-being, but
only if they continued to do well at their goals
during the second semester. In contrast, students who did well in the first semester but not
in the second semester tended to regress back to
their original well-being levels. This study offers direct support for our assumption that happiness can be enhanced and then maintained at
the new level, especially when volitional activity is effectively pursued over long periods of
time. Further supporting this conclusion, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) recently resurveyed these participants 3 years after the original study and found that initially high-performing students had maintained their earlier gains
in emotional well-being throughout their college career.
But what about adaptation? Is it not the case
that even the most successful striver adapts to
his or her happy situation eventually? More
generally, is it not the case that people ultimately adapt to the positive effects of any activity in which they engage, whether it be behavioral, cognitive, or volitional, so that the
activity loses its potency over time?
Although hedonic adaptation undoubtedly
constrains the happiness-inducing effects of in-
tentional activities, just as it does for circumstances, this adaptation effect appears to be
weaker in the case of activity, as shown by
recent data. For example, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) recently conducted several
short-term longitudinal studies in which participants’ well-being (positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction) was measured at
Time 1, and positive circumstantial and activity-based life changes were measured at Time 2.
Well-being was then measured twice more, at
Times 3 and 4. These investigators found consistent support for a path model, displayed in
Figure 2, in which both positive circumstantial
change and positive activity change predicted
enhanced life satisfaction and positive affect at
Time 3, but only positive activity change predicted maintained happiness gains at Time 4,
with positive circumstantial change dropping
out of the model. In other words, consistent with
the present model, only activity-based well-being change lasted; circumstance-based happiness change did not.
In a separate study, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) randomly assigned participants to
report on either activity-based positive changes
or circumstantially based positive changes in
their lives. Relative to those in the circumstantial-change group, those in the activity-change
group reported a weaker sense of “having gotten
used to the change, such that it does not give the
same boost as before,” and more strongly endorsed the statement “the change is something
that varies over time, that is, something that
adds variety to my life.” These findings further
support the claim that activity changes are characterized by less hedonic adaptation than circumstantial changes. Parenthetically, Sheldon
and Lyubomirsky’s (2004) findings, taken as a
whole, support the validity of our distinction
Figure 2. Longitudinal path model predicting maintained
changes in well-being from positive circumstantial changes
and positive activity changes. Asterisks indicate p .01.
between circumstantial changes and activity
changes. Although the boundaries between
these categories can be fuzzy, apparently they
are clear enough to produce the predicted
Specific Advantages of Intentional Activity
What are the sources of the sustainable happiness gains afforded by intentional activity?
We posit that activity-based change, unlike circumstance-based change, has several desirable
features that may help to combat adaptation.
Intentional activity is episodic. One feature
of activities is that they are, by definition, episodic and transient; after all, people cannot
spend all of their time doing one thing. This in
itself suggests that individuals may adapt less
readily to new activities than to new circumstances. The episodic nature of activity also
suggests that an additional way to maximize the
impact of an activity is to attend to the timing of
that activity. For example, a person might
choose to “count her blessings” only after braving a difficult period, or only when she is especially needful of a boost. Suppose instead that
she counts the same blessings every day, in a
nonvarying routine. This person may become
bored with the routine and cease to extract
meaning from it. The length of time before one
reengages in a happiness-boosting activity is an
important part of its potency in the next application. By being mindful of the “refractory period” (Kalat, 2001) after which a recently performed activity regains its full happiness-inducing potential, individuals may maximize the
benefits of the activity over time and avoid
reducing or eliminating the activity’s effectiveness through overuse. Thus, people should
strive to discover the optimal timing for each
activity, that is, a frequency of engagement that
allows that activity to remain fresh, meaningful,
and positive for a particular person.
Intentional activity can be varied. Another
important parameter of behavioral, cognitive,
and volitional activities is that people can continually vary them, both in their foci and in the
ways they engage in them. This may help to
reduce adaptation to the activity, allowing it to
retain its potency (McAlister, 1982). Indeed, by
definition, adaptation does not occur to stimuli
that are variable or changeable but only to those
that are constant or repeated (cf. Frederick &
Loewenstein, 1999). For example, a scientist
may regularly ask new questions and become
involved in new projects. In the process, she
often feels the joy of making fascinating new
discoveries and thus may remain particularly
happy (i.e., at the upper end of her potential
range) over a long period of time. If the person
counting her blessings varies the domains of life
in which she counts them (i.e., in relationships,
in work, in her health, or in her most recently
successful domain), then the strategy may remain “fresh” and meaningful and work indefinitely. Supporting this notion, past research
suggests that people tend to seek variety in their
behavior (McAlister, 1982; Ratner, Kahn, &
Kahneman, 1999), perhaps because change—in
both thoughts and actions—is innately pleasurable and stimulating (Berlyne, 1970; Rolls et
al., 1981).
Intentional activity can directly counteract
adaptation. Yet another advantage of intentional activity is that it can directly tackle the
problem presented by adaptation. For example,
the cognitive practice of pausing to savor the
good things in one’s life can directly counteract
the effects of hedonic adaptation to one’s constant circumstances by drawing attention to the
features that produced the initial happiness
boost and helping to keep them from being
taken for granted. As another example, practiced meditators frequently report renewed appreciation of the ordinary as a result of their
intentional reencounters with the world.
The fact that intentional activity can directly
counteract adaptation and the hedonic treadmill
helps shed further light on the distinction between life circumstances and intentional activities. Obviously, many personal characteristics
are both. For example, “being married” and
“being a student” both denote demographic status, yet they also reflect particular sorts of activities. From our perspective, the crucial distinction with respect to well-being is whether
one exerts intentional effort with respect to the
circumstantial category, that is, whether one
acts upon the circumstance (e.g., using intentional practices to keep the circumstance
“fresh”). For example, an individual can engage
in a number of intentional activities with respect
to the circumstantial category “marriage”: A
husband can have the goal of making his marriage work (a volitional activity), he can make
the effort to appreciate his wife’s positive qual-
ities (an attitudinal activity), and he can try to
remember to bring her flowers (a behavioral
activity). A person who performs these activities would probably best counteract adaptation
to this particular circumstance and derive the
most benefit from it. In contrast, consider a
husband who is not intentionally engaged in his
marriage; for him, this demographic circumstance would essentially become a background
factor, to which adaptation is very likely.
For all of these reasons, intentional activity
appears to offer the best prospects for increasing
and sustaining happiness. Of course, following
through on new intentions, such as the ubiquitous “New Year’s resolutions,” is not necessarily easy (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998). Indeed, we
assume that happiness-increasing strategies can
be initiated and effectively pursued only with
concerted, consistent commitment and effort.
Still, activity-based factors are, by definition,
under greater potential control by the individual
than are genetic, demographic, and most life
status factors. In other words, if anything can do
it, intentional activity can.
Implementing Happiness-Increasing
In this section, we briefly consider several
important issues pertaining to how intentional
activity might be used for increasing happiness. In other words, having established that
activity can potentially sustainably elevate
happiness, how might one put this potential to
work? We discuss these strategic issues in
roughly chronological order, proceeding from
the question of how to choose a particular
happiness-boosting activity to the question of
how such activity may be initiated and the
question of how the activity can be maintained over time to produce a sustained increase in the chronic level of happiness. In the
process, we discuss the issue of person–strategy fit, the meaning and nature of effort, the
definition and role of habits, and the impact of
short-term versus long-term considerations.
Choosing an Activity: The Role of
Person–Activity Fit
Any one particular activity will not help every person become happier. People have endur-
ing strengths, interests, values, and inclinations
that undoubtedly predispose them to benefit
more from some strategies than others. For example, extraverts may benefit most from activities that bring them into regular contact with
other people, and people high in nurturance
motivation may benefit most from activities that
afford them opportunities to take care of others.
This general “matching” hypothesis (Harackiewicz & Sansone, 1991) is supported by much
recent work showing that the positive effects of
goal attainment on well-being are moderated by
goal–person fit (Brunstein et al., 1998; Diener &
Fujita, 1995; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon
& Kasser, 1998). It is also supported by past
well-being intervention research. For example,
in several studies that instructed participants to
apply 14 different techniques to increase their
personal happiness, the particular techniques
considered most effective for raising happiness
varied greatly from one individual to another
and appeared to be determined by each participant’s needs and areas of specific weakness
(Fordyce, 1977, 1983).
The fit of an activity with a person might be
conceptualized in a variety of ways, for example, with respect to individuals’ motive dispositions, basic needs, core values, signature
strengths, personal resources, hedonic profiles,
or other individual-difference characteristics.
There are also a variety of ways that fit might be
operationalized, such as in terms of self-reported fit, in terms of consistency between implicit and explicit measures of activity-relevant
motives, or in terms of informant-rated person–
activity fit. Another approach is to assume that
certain kinds of experiences are likely to be
beneficial to anyone, because these experiences
reflect universal psychological needs. From this
point of view, any activity that provides certain
experiences, such as those involving belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), self-efficacy
(Bandura, 1997), or autonomy (Deci & Ryan,
2000), might be assumed to “fit” the person, a
Role of Effort
Initiating an activity. We assume that engaging in an activity requires at least two different kinds of effort: first, the effort required to
initiate the activity and, second, the effort required to actually carry out and maintain the
activity. This distinction is necessary because it
is clear that many activities have definite positive effects if the person can only get started
doing them. For example, exercising in the
morning, making time to work on at least one
important project during the day, or pausing to
count one’s blessings at the end of the day can
have significant benefits, but only if the person
can “get over the hurdle” of remembering to do
them and overcoming any obstacles to initiating
them. Obviously, those who do not implement
their activity intentions stand a worse chance of
benefiting from them than those who do! We
assume that this kind of self-regulatory effort
requires considerable self-discipline and willpower. Furthermore, such effort may constitute
a limited resource, one that must be marshaled
carefully; in Muraven and Baumeister’s (2000)
terms, self-regulatory will is like a “muscle”
that has limited capacity in a given unit of time
and must be used strategically to avoid fatigue.
If this analogy is accurate, then it seems
logical that some people develop the muscle to
a greater extent than others, thus attaining a
greater ability to “get started” on their intentions
and gaining greater happiness potential. Of
course, some activities will appear intrinsically
more appealing and will be easier to jumpstart;
this is undoubtedly one advantage of selecting
an activity that fits one’s personality. For example, rather than running on a track, a fitnessseeking wilderness lover might instead choose
to run on a trail through the woods, thereby
feeling much less initial resistance to beginning
the activity. As another example, rather than
learning classical pieces, a jazz-loving piano
student might instead choose to work on jazz
standards, enhancing the intrinsic appeal of sitting down to practice.
Maintaining an activity. This brings us to
the second type of effort. Obviously, if a particular activity is to yield sustained happiness
change, the person must keep performing the
activity over the long term. For many effective
happiness-enhancing activities, this will not be
difficult, because the task will probably be inherently interesting or rewarding and thus will
be “autotelic” in nature (Deci & Ryan, 2000),
that is, self-reinforcing and self-sustaining. This
is especially true to the extent that the person
continually varies what he or she does. If, for
example, a person shifts attention among several projects at work, explores new trails in the
state park, or seeks out interesting new piano
pieces, his or her activities should remain intrinsically enjoyable and conducive to many rewarding “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
What if the activity is not enjoyable and thus
difficult to maintain? In this case, stopping the
activity may not be problematic, because it
probably is not working anyway. By emphasizing the importance of enjoying one’s intentional
activity, however, we do not mean to imply that
people should seek out only “fun” activities.
Sometimes choosing to endure boring or even
aversive experiences in the short term can have
considerable positive effects on chronic happiness in the long term; for example, studying for
an important exam in a tedious but required
class may well represent an excellent investment in one’s future chronic happiness, even
though it may detract from one’s momentary
happiness. As another example, a naval officer
candidate is paying a short-term cost (boot
camp) to receive a longer term benefit (a career
as an officer).
Of note, self-determination theory (Deci &
Ryan, 2000; Sheldon, Joiner, & Williams,
2003) posits that the crucial factor in such cases
is whether the person has internalized the nonenjoyable activity, that is, whether he or she is
able to find meaning and value expression in it,
even if it i…
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