“We Have Found That Almost Any Types of Acts of Kindness Boost Happiness.”

Happiness interview: Sonja Lyubomirsky.

I got to know Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky through her work, which includes the fascinating book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (just the kind of book I love), and then I met her in person when we appeared together in this episode of the Katie Couric show.

Now she has a new book, The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does.

She’s one of the leading writers and thinkers on the subject of happiness, so I was very eager to get the chance to pose some questions.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Sonja: Research shows that there are many simple activities that reliably make people happier.  My favorite is doing acts of kindness.  The generous acts don’t have to be random and they don’t have to be a certain kind (e.g, anonymous or social or big, etc.).  We have found that almost any types of acts of kindness boost happiness.  And two hot-off-the-presses studies reveal even bigger benefits.  An experiment we just published in PLOS ONE showed that when 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers.  And another big intervention we just finished at a company in Spain showed that asking some employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues (we called this our “Secret Santa” manipulation) produced huge benefits (for increasing happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreasing depression) not just for the givers, but for the receivers and even for observers.  The recipients of kindness “paid the kind acts forward” and even acquaintances of the givers became happier and were inspired to act more generously themselves.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

It sounds like a cliché but I know now that happiness “resides within” and that often our “problems” can be solved by simply changing how we think about them.  A great deal of research bears this out.  As William James, the philosopher, observed, where we direct attention determines our experience; it determines our life. So we can choose to spend most of our days ruminating about negatives or we can choose to be grateful.  This doesn’t mean that we have to be in denial – it simply suggests that at least part of our time we decide to direct our attention to the positives in our life and the world at large and on the things that really matter.

 Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

An avalanche of studies (including those done by myself and my cherished mentor, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale professor who suddenly and tragically passed away last week) show that circular, obsessive dwelling or overthinking (what researchers call “rumination”) is a huge obstacle to happiness. Ruminating about our problems or our feelings makes us feel even more depressed, even more pessimistic, and more out of control.

Also, as my new book, The Myths of Happiness, describes in detail, one of the biggest obstacles to staying happy is hedonic adaptation – the phenomenon that human beings are remarkably good at getting used to positive changes in their lives.  After we get married, buy a new house, obtain a promotion, or get rich, those life changes thrill us for a while, but the thrill wears off rather quickly. We either revert back to our previous level of happiness or, worse, we feel emptiness or even letdown. Understanding that this is an ordinary human process will help us get through those turning points and also find ways to slow down adaptation — for example, by putting effort into appreciating the positive life change and/or introducing novelty, variety, and surprise into our daily lives.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness? 

I frequently witness people reiterating one of the primary happiness “myths” – namely, that they’re not happy now, but they’ll be happy when the right partner or job comes along, when they have a baby, when they make more money, or move to that city they’ve always wanted to live in.  This type of thinking detracts from our happiness because it leads to outsized — and frankly false — expectations about the extent to which positive life events can impact our happiness for the longterm.  Research shows that these events almost never make us as happy (or for as long) as we believe they will. And when that happens, we might conclude that there’s something wrong with us and we may end up making poor decisions, like jettisoning perfectly good jobs or partners.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy? 

The view.  We bought a new house (which is literally twice as big and much nicer than our old condo) just two months ago and even though I have almost completely adapted to everything about the house (the beautiful kitchen, bathrooms, extra bedrooms, etc.), but not the view.  This experience is fully supported by research.  We adapt very quickly to our possessions but not to our experiences, especially changeable ones.  The view changes all the time, and on clear beautiful days (of which there are many where I live) we see ships in the ocean.

  • I love the book “The How of Happiness”. If someone is not interested in reading the book, watch the documentary ‘Happy’ available on Netflix and Amazon. It introduces you to many of the same ideas. I discussed the movie and the book at Improve your happiness.

  • molly

    I ruminate! There, I said it! It’s awful and after reading one of this author’s books as well as Gretchen’s discussions about it, I am trying to give up the habit. It’s hard for those who like (or hate to like!) wallowing in the past. Gretchen — I would love to hear more from you about hedonic adaptation and why it is so difficult to put into practice even when we understand its truth. We’re so programmed to believe that true happiness lies in reaching that out-of-reach goal, and it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that the thing we cannot/will never get would make us happy forever. I try to remind myself that some things it is no longer reasonable to expect I will get wouldn’t have the lasting effects on my happiness that my desires lead me to think they will have. My head is in line, but my heart hasn’t caught up. This is related to ruminating, obsessive dwelling, etc. Any advice or future posts on this topic would be greatly appreciated! At least by this faithful reader!

    • peninith1

      Ruminating is the rabbit hole doorway to hell, as far as I can tell. Anything you can do to keep yourself here and now is good. Hand wash dishes and feel the sensation of the water, soap, shape of the dishes in your hands, patterns on the dishes, condition of the glaze. Peel and eat an orange. Slowly, savoring the aroma, texture on your fingers, sensation in your mouth. Walk outside and focus on the scenery, whether grim concrete or green garden, and not the contents of your thought. I learned to love butterfly watching by being distracted from ruminating and crying about my thoughts by a giant yellow swallowtail. That was the beginning of coming up into the light for me. You CAN do it, but you have to work at it. And I’m afraid you will always have to work–but the rewards are great.

      • Molly

        Thanks, you are so right. I picked up some of these distracting tips in the How of Happiness and on a blog from Gretchen Rubin, but you are right, it’s a constant struggle to stay focused on the present, or even look forward to the future, rather than ruminating about the past. This is such a mental activity, and I do think you are right that some of the most helpful things are getting in touch with the senses and turning off the mental tape which so automatically goes back to this!

      • Rachel

        I learnt this as “mindfulness” from a counsellor who was helping me with anxiety. Staying in the present can circumvent or shorten a panic attack because it’s the thought processes, particularly the “what ifs”, that are instrumental in causing and continuing the attack. I used to use it for that; now I just enjoy mindfulness for its own sake.

    • gretchenrubin
      • Molly

        Thanks, Gretchen, reading about the arrival fallacy was helpful! Good to have a label for it, too, since it is easier to remind myself “arrival fallacy” rather than going over the whole adaptation fallacy thing:) I always love having a word or phrase to remind myself! And isn’t it interesting …the psychology of arriving at a goal and the impurity of the pleasure we feel as compared to what we imagine, on the one hand, yet it would really squelch our happiness to STOP setting, pursuing, and achieving goals, on the other hand. Ahh….life! Have a great weekend!

  • bamboobonnie

    So “happy” to discover your insights today on LinkedIn. Ruminate the Positive!

  • Trivedi Effect

    Great read. Great information. Thanks.

  • Shirley Creed

    I agree that doing acts of kindness makes me feel happy. That and being grateful for the acts of kindness people do for me. And people are so kind! To slightly misquote Tennessee Williams, I am constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers. Friends and family too. I have a huge debt of kindnesses to pay and the act of paying it to anyone gives me a glow. It’s a win/win situation.

  • Mary A. Witt, MMFT

    As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I found several of her comments interesting. There is something we see that could be called the “Build Our Dream Home” phenomenon. A couple will be vaguely or openly unhappy with their relationship, but they always attribute it to something else (the kids are aggravating, the job is stressful, the house is too cramped). The opportunity to build “their Dream Home” arises and they jump in. Surely this will make everything feel better. The building process is stressful, however, and the relationship takes a few hits along the way. Finally, however, they move into their beautiful new home. As they live there, do they see the teamwork it took to build the house? Perhaps. Or perhaps they are bothered daily as they see all of the details that were their partner’s choice — even though their own choice would have been “much better.”

    Eventually for some, they realize that the shiny new large house didn’t improve things and they aren’t any happier than in the cramped one. From there it can take several paths: they can just grit their teeth and live with it; they can look for/be vulnerable to an affair; they can ask their partner to go to couples counseling; or they can ask for a divorce.

    This scenario can be applied to jobs and other life issues, of course. Think of it the next time you hear about a couple splitting a year or two after achieving a huge goal.

    • gretchenrubin

      The phrase “Build our dream house” so perfectly describes this.

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  • Thank you for sharing. The How of Happiness is on my short list of books to read within the next three months!

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