Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Model of Happiness

Postby Bob Collier » Sat May 15, 2004 10:29 am

This is from the latest issue of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter

What do the professionals make of this?

Genes, Circumstances, and Intentions:
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Model of Happiness developed with Ken Sheldon (University of Missouri) and David Schkade (University of Texas at Austin)

by Ben Dean, Ph.D.

The Model

I want to share with you Sonja’s and her colleagues model of what determines happiness because it is straightforward and comprehensive, making it ideal for using in your work with coaching clients. As you can see in the chart below, Sonja and her colleagues believe that our happiness is caused by our Genetic Set Point, our Life Circumstances, and our Intentional Activities.

[pie chart not included]

I will explain each piece of the pie and its contribution to happiness below. (Sonja came up with the approximate percentages you see by surveying and synthesizing the existing literature on happiness.

Set Point Explains 50% of Our Current Happiness

Our happiness set point is largely genetically determined. We enter the world with a predisposition toward a certain level of happiness, and when everything else is equal, our happiness levels tends to hover around this set point. You can probably identify those people in your life with a high happiness set point. These are the people who are perpetually and effortlessly happy. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those individuals who rarely laugh or experience joy. They have a low happiness set point. Fortunately for anyone who is dissatisfied with how happy he or she is “naturally,” the model does not end here.

Life Circumstances Explain 10% of Current Happiness

According to their model, our level of happiness is also influenced by the circumstances of our lives. Life circumstances include demographic variable such as our age, sex, marital status, and income as well as contextual variables such as getting a new job, moving to a new neighborhood, or injuring a knee while running.

Both economists and psychologists have demonstrated that people tend to adapt quickly to positive and negative life events. When people are surveyed one year after a major life event such as winning the lottery or sustaining injuries in a car crash, they tend to be about as happy as they were just before the major event. Major boosts or dips in our happiness level due to life circumstances tend to be short-lived. We adapt to our life circumstances.

So what, if anything, can produce a lasting change in our happiness? Sonja and her colleagues believe that the answer lies in the final component of the model, Intentional Activities.

Intentional Activities Explain 40% of Our Current Happiness

The term intentional activities refers to those thoughts and behaviors that require effort. This effort may be apparent only to us (for example, making a list of goals for the week) or it may be visible to others (for example, doing a favor for a friend). They suggest that intentional activities are the key to making lasting changes in happiness because such activities are more resistant to adaptation (the process by which we get used to something and become unaffected by it). We can deliberately engage in activities that make us happy while varying them enough to ward off adaptation.

Support for the Model

Sonja and her colleague Ken Sheldon, Ph.D., recently found preliminary support for this model of happiness. They tracked the happiness levels and life events of undergraduates over one academic semester and found that both life circumstances and intentional activities predicted increased happiness midway through the semester. Yet by the end of the semester, only behavioral changes predicted increased happiness.

So it seems that if we want to be happier over the long-term, then we need to work at it over the long-term. There are no short-cuts. Maintaining happiness gains requires work in the same way that maintaining gains from a diet and fitness program does. Without sustained effort, changes in happiness are likely to be temporary.

Applying the Model

An important next phase in positive psychology research is identifying which behaviors—which intentional activities--work. In our last issue of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter, MartySeligman presented a number of exercises that boosted the happiness levels of participants up to three months. Sonja adds to this growing list of activities with exercises of her own, one of which I will give to you today:

Sonja’s Exercise

Sonja and her colleagues asked students to perform five “random acts of kindness” per week, over the course of six weeks (35 total acts of kindness). Students were told to choose acts of kindness that met two criteria: (1) The act benefited another person and (2) The act required them to give something away (for example, their time, their energy, their food, or some other personal resource)

I heard Sonja present these results at a recent conference, during which she noted (with much humor) that these “random acts of kindness” were not really random at all! A more appropriate (but less catchy) name for this exercise would be “intentional acts of kindness,” so you may want to use that name instead should you choose to use this exercise with others.

Who is Sonja Lyubomirsky?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Originally from Russia, she received her A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard University in 1989 and her Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1994. Honors include the Stanford Centennial Teaching Assistant Award, an NIMH National Research Service Award, an NSF Graduate Fellowship, a Jacob Javits Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Work, and the Harvard Faculty Prize for Outstanding Honors Thesis. Sonja currently teaches courses in social psychology and positive psychology and is Director of the Psychology Undergraduate Honors Program at UC Riverside. She recently obtained a 1 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop and test exercises for increasing and sustaining happiness.

Take Home Point

It is possible to lastingly increase your happiness, but this takes work. Through consistent application of intentional activities such as Sonja’s “Random Acts of Kindness” exercise as well as the exercises presented by Marty Seligman in the last newsletter, we can become happier and stay that way.

Thanks for reading this edition of the Authentic Happiness Coaching Newsletter.
Bob Collier
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Postby AGM » Tue May 18, 2004 7:13 am

I note the reference to Martin Seligman, the psychologist who did the experiments on dogs in boxes and learned helplessness. I didn't realise he also had a learned 'happiness' theory. Interesting.
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Postby AaronAgassi » Thu Jun 26, 2008 4:55 am

My personal website details a modest proposal towards application of theory in depth via precision strategic intentional activity. But you'll have to search it out for yourselves, because I'm blocked from posting URLs!
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Postby gomen » Thu Jun 26, 2008 5:25 am

the model doesnt sound that different from what is known, but it's nice to hear goals reinforced and phrased in a different way.

but i doubt that happiness is simply 50% genetic, 10% current circumstances, and 40% goals ('intentional activities'). a lot more of it is probably core beliefs and thinking habits established during youth. anyway, calling anything 'genetic' is highly debatable.
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Postby Hydrogen » Thu Jun 26, 2008 12:55 pm

If you think in terms of history, for the most part, humans have been struggling to survive. Happiness was more of an urge to escape reality to find some joy and rest. Very few people were wealthy enough to have the idle time to make happiness a full time job. For the vast majority happiness was more of a projection to dream, heaven or utopia. Happiness was more in the imagination to escape harsh realty. If there is a genetic connection for happiness, historical repetition would imply the genetic connection is a combination of imagination and escapism.

Over the past century there are more people who have the idle time to make happiness part of their lifestyle. Culture defines where the great escape will be. The individual choses from the options given. But happiness is temporary for any particular thing. That is because it part imagination. Once realty alters the imagination that there is the need for a new escape or repetition. This suggests happiness may have been modeled on and be sublimated instinct. It is very similar to eating, which is compulsive, satisfying but needs constant repetition. Once it becomes digested, you get hungry again.

It likely the historical struggle often involved hunger. The happiness when food was scarce was escapism into a paradise. This sublimated hunger. The happiness urge has both the elements of the cyclic nature of hunger and utopian imagination. The free market makes use of this cyclic nature to provide a constant flow of goods and services to feed this hunger. Fads are like foods with an expiration date. Retirement is often like buying canned foods that you can put on the self and use later. There must also be junk food analogies, foods high in cholesterol, heath foods, etc. Life's simple pleasures may be like natural foods for happiness.
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