The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sonja Lyubomirsky

The majority of my research career has been devoted to studying human happiness. Why is the scientific study of happiness important? In short, because most people believe happiness is meaningful, desirable, and an important, worthy goal, because happiness is one of the most salient and significant dimensions of human experience and emotional life, because happiness yields numerous rewards for the individual, and because it makes for a better, healthier, stronger society. Along these lines, my current research addresses three critical questions - 1) What makes people happy?; 2) Is happiness a good thing?; and 3) How and why can people learn to lead happier and more flourishing lives?

Why Are Some People Happier Than Others?

I have always been struck by the capacity of some individuals to be remarkably happy, even in the face of stress, trauma, or adversity. Thus, my earlier research efforts had been focused on trying to understand why some people are happier than others (for a review, see Lyubomirsky, 2001). To this end, my approach had been to explore the cognitive and motivational processes that distinguish individuals who show exceptionally high and low levels of happiness. These processes include social comparison (how people compare themselves to peers), dissonance reduction (how people justify both trivial and important choices in their lives), self-evaluation (how people judge themselves), and person perception (how people think about others). All of these processes, it turns out, have hedonic implications - that is, positive or negative consequences for happiness and self-regard - and thus are relevant to elucidating individual differences in enduring well-being. My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways. For example, we found that happy individuals are relatively more likely than their less happy peers to "endow" positive memories (i.e., store them in their emotional "bank accounts") but to "contrast" negative memories (i.e., "life is so much better now") (Liberman, Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Ross, 2011).

On-going studies in my laboratory are exploring additional cognitive and motivational processes that support the differing worlds of enduring happiness versus chronic unhappiness. For example, several investigations have revealed that unhappy individuals are more likely than happy ones to dwell on negative or ambiguous events (Lyubomirsky, Boehm, Kasri, & Zehm, 2011). Such "dwelling" or rumination may drain cognitive resources and thus bring to bear a variety of negative consequences, which could further reinforce unhappiness. These findings demonstrate some of the maladaptive by-products of self-reflection, suggesting that not only is the "unexamined life" worth living, but it is potentially full of happiness and joy.

To cast our work on happiness in a broader framework, we have also been exploring the meaning, expression, and pursuit of happiness across cultures, subcultures, and age groups (e.g., Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Sheldon, 2011). For example, despite media reports, do parents actually experience more happiness and meaning than do non-parents? Furthermore, we are currently carrying out happiness-increasing interventions among Japanese technical workers, Korean undergraduates, Spanish professionals, Australian blue collar workers, Canadian elementary school students, and British teens.

What Are the Benefits of Happiness?

A recent interest has steered me from the search of the roots of happiness to an examination of its consequences. Is happiness a good thing? Or, does it just simply feel good? A review of all the available literature has revealed that happiness does indeed have numerous positive byproducts, which appear to benefit not only individuals, but families, communities, and the society at large (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). The benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes (e.g., greater productivity and higher quality of work), larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life. The literature, my colleagues and I have found, also suggests that happy individuals are more creative, helpful, charitable, and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities. On-going and future experimental and longitudinal studies that attempt to increase the long-term happiness of students and working adults will give us the opportunity to assess whether increases in durable happiness predict changes in other positive outcomes, such as altruistic behavior, creativity, work performance, physical health, and social relationships. We are investigating whether both happiness and generosity propagate across social networks (funded by Notre Dame University's Science of Generosity Initiative), and whether happiness is associated with more physical movement and greater social interactions (funded by Hitachi's Central Research Laboratory).

The Architecture of Sustainable Happiness

An ongoing program of research with my students and collaborator Ken Sheldon is asking the question, "How can happiness be reliably increased?" (for reviews, see Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2009; Lyubomirsky, 2008; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). Despite pessimism from the current literature that the pursuit of happiness may be largely futile, my colleagues and I believe that durable increases in happiness are indeed possible and within the average person's reach. Thus, following my construal theory of happiness, I am exploring how the cognitive and motivational processes and biases associated with relatively greater happiness can be nurtured, acquired, or directly taught. To this end, my current research is investigating the mechanisms by which a chronic happiness level higher than one's genetically-determined set point can be achieved and sustained. My colleagues and I believe that sustainable increases in happiness are possible through the practice of intentional cognitive, motivational, and behavioral activities that are feasible to deploy but require daily and concerted effort and commitment.

We are presently conducting multiple experimental intervention studies in which participants' cognitive and behavioral strategies are systematically retrained. For example, intervention studies with students, community members, workers, depressed individuals, and hospital patients are testing the efficacy of five cognitive and behavioral volitional strategies: 1) regularly setting aside time to recall moments of gratitude (i.e., keeping a journal in which one "counts one's blessings" or writing a gratitude letter), 2) engaging in self-regulatory and positive thinking about oneself (i.e., reflecting, writing, and talking about one's happiest and unhappiest life events or one's goals for the future), 3) practicing altruism and kindness (i.e., routinely committing acts of kindness), 4) pursuing significant, intrinsic life goals (e.g., listing and taking action on "baby steps" towards goals), and 5) savoring positive experiences (e.g., using one's five senses to relish daily moments). Most important, we are testing whether the benefits of such activities differ across cultures (see above), and whether they are influenced by such factors as person-activity "fit," motivation, persistence, social support, social comparison, face-to-face delivery, variety, timing, and expectations (e.g., Boehm et al., 2011; Lyubomirsky, Dickerhoof, Boehm, & Sheldon, 2011; Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhoof, 2006; Sheldon et al., 2010). We are also examining the "why" of happiness-boosting interventions by testing the mediating role of positive experiences, need satisfaction, flow, intrinsic motivation, and positive thoughts. Finally, we are investigating genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in responses to happiness-increasing interventions.

Thwarting Hedonic Adaptation------------------------

Finally, a line of research with my students and Ken Sheldon focuses on hedonic adaptation to positive experience as a critical barrier to raising happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2011; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, in press). After all, if people become accustomed to (and take for granted) anything positive that happens to them, then how can they ever become happier? A new model suggests that adaptation to positive experience proceeds via two paths: 1) through diminished positive emotions and 2) through increased aspirations. The key to achieving increased and lasting well-being thereby lies in effortful, intentional activities that slow down or preclude the positive adaptation process. Current studies are testing the hypothesis that such activities share several properties that potentially help them to effectively forestall adaptation: they are dynamic, episodic, novel, and attention-enticing.---- We are presently applying our model to understand what produces materialism and --------------------------------------

Sonja Lyubomirsky