What strategies are there for increasing happiness?

In the past few weeks I have explored the current scientific knowledge about happiness. This is the third in a series of posts to give you a brief update on the things I found.

Happiness strategies

The self-help section has been filled for many years with books that tell people how to be happy, and there have always been people who either welcomed or opposed this line of business. However, the recent years of research in positive psychology have brought a change to this situation, by introducing the first-ever scientific happiness strategies.

Scientific literature describes a number of strategies that focus on improving life satisfaction through behavioral change. These strategies have all been validated through empirical research, which makes them worthwhile. They all neglect one’s set point and circumstances, and focus on the voluntarily controlled activities. However, their approach differs within that constraint. The most commonly adopted strategies are those of Lyubomirsky and Seligman.

Strategy 1: Capitalize on strengths and virtues (Seligman, 2003)
Virtues were very important in ancient cultures. After the age of industrialization and individualization, they have gradually receded from our moral system. According to Seligman, there are two levels of happiness that one could for.

A. The good life comes from using signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification in the mansions of life; for example, enjoying work and creative activities.
B. The most profound sense of happiness is experienced in the meaningful life, achieved if one exercises one’s unique strengths and virtues in a purpose greater than one’s own immediate goals.

Seligman has compiled a classification of virtues and strengths by studying an extensive amount of literary works of all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Upon identifying strengths, he formulated the following criteria: They are valued in almost every culture, they are valued in their own right, not just as a means to other ends, they are malleable.

Six virtues were found that were the core characteristics endorsed by almost all religious and philosophical traditions, and taken together captured the notion of good character. Underneath the virtues lie strengths of character, which are ways by which one can achieve a certain virtue.

1. Wisdom (curiosity, love of learning, judgement, ingenuity, emotional intelligence, perspective)
2. Courage (valor, perseverance, integrity)
3. Humanity (kindness, loving)
4. Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)
5. Temperance (self-control, prudence, humility)
6. Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest)

Seligman stresses that it is important to find out what strengths are one’s own (signature strengths), because they are the only ones that can be naturally blended into one’s life.

Strategy 2: Intentional activities (Lyubomirsky, 2007)
Lyubomirsky proposes twelve intentional activities that have benefits for one’s life satisfaction that have all been validated through extensive testing. Unlike Seligman’s, these strategies are much more tangible.

1. Expressing Gratitude
2. Cultivating Optimism
3. Avoiding Over-thinking and Social Comparison
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
5. Nurturing Social Relationships
6. Developing Strategies for Coping
7. Learning to Forgive
8. Increasing Flow Experiences
9. Savoring Life’s Joys
10. Committing to Your Goals
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
12. Taking Care of Your Body

Different persons will benefit from different strategies. Lyubomirsky emphasizes the need to find a suitable strategy that fits with one’s source of unhappiness, one’s signature strengths, and one’s lifestyle. The latter is important regarding the effort with which a new behavior can be adopted. To find a suitable strategy, several tools can be used, such as a ‘Person-Activity fit diagnostic’ (p.74) and a ‘Happiness activity matrix’ (p.305).

Furthermore, Lyubomirsky concludes that in order for the strategies to work to full effect, there are some requirements, which are essentially all linked to behavioral psychology.

A. Positive Emotion
B. Optimal Timing and Variety
C. Social Support
D. Motivation, Effort and Commitment
E. Habit

Comparing the two strategies

When comparing these two frameworks, it is immediately obvious that one is much more general than the other. Seligman takes the perspective of a psychologist, and Lyubomirsky of a psychiatrist.

Interestingly enough, the model of neurological levels by Robert Dilts can provide some insight into these strategies. This model is often used by professional coaches and consultants to study change individuals or organizations. The model defines six neurological levels organizes on top of one another. Changing an attribute of one level may of may not affect the upper levels, but will always affect the lower levels. A change in behavior of a lower level will not last for a long time if a value of belief at the upper level does not support the new behavior (Exforsys, 2009).

Dilts’ Neurological Levels model adapted from (Exforsys, 2009) with happiness strategies plotted onto them

Dilts’ Neurological Levels model adapted from (Exforsys, 2009) with happiness strategies plotted onto them

Plotting the strategies of Seligman and Lyubomirsky onto this diagram, we can observe that Seligman’s strategies relate very much to values and capabilities, whereas Lyubomirsky’s strategies involve capabilities and behavior. With the rules of neurological levels in mind, Seligman’s strategies theoretically could influence more levels than Lyubomirsky’s. However, since Lyubomirsky’s strategies are more down to earth, they may be adapted to specific products more easily and effectively.

The success of current strategies

Positive psychology has found that there is no ultimate strategy for everybody. Different strategies suit different people, dependant on their signature strengths, lifestyle and source of unhappiness. The level of success that one can gain with a strategy also depends on these factors, as well as the way in which the strategies are executed. Lyubomirsky concludes that positive emotion, optimal timing and variety, social support, motivation, commitment, effort and habit are all necessary in order for a strategy to have a lasting effect on one’s life satisfaction.

According to Pauline van der Veeken (2009), a professional happiness coach: “Strategies need to activate, or let someone intentionally choose not to become active. They need to cause a movement, no matter how small.”

It seems that choosing, adopting and maintaining the right strategy can be difficult. Here lies an opportunity for design.

– Exforsys, 2009. Exforsys toturials. [Online] Available at: http://www.exforsys.com/tutorials/nlp/nlp-neurological-levels.html [Accessed 24 September 2009].
– Lyubomirsky, S., 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Seligman, M.E.P., 2003. Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
– Veeken, P.v.d., 2009. Interview with Pauline van der Veeken. Rotterdam, The Netherlands. by Hans Ruitenberg.


3 responses to “What strategies are there for increasing happiness?

  1. Very interesting framing of mine and Marty’s work!


    • designinghappiness

      Hi Sonja, thanks for the compliment! I’m excited that you’ve found this blog! If you’re interested, please check back on this blog. I’ll be posting some more exploratory research and then product ideas in the future.

  2. Vey interesting. This whole area is gaining momentum in the public consciousness. Keen to learn more about what individuals can do to become happier.

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