Category Archives: Project updates

I will post periodic updates about my graduation project, so you can read up on it if you’re interested. I try to explain why and how I’m doing what I’m doing.

From research to design

The explorative research has produced a truckload of information. While all very inspiring, it is a bit too much to take it all into account when starting up the design process. Therefore I will now report of a crucial step in my project: ‘from research to design.’ In this step, I have reviewed the research outcomes, and formulated a focus for the design phase.

Research insights

The literature research and explorative research have been conducted separately. The goal of the literature research was to form a scientific basis for this project, and the explorative research was conducted to find out more about the experience of adopting a happiness strategy. While both having been useful to their own ends, they had not yet been combined into one research conclusion.

To try and bridge the gap, I reviewed the results of the explorative research to find links to theory. I did this by transcribing the two focus groups I’d organized, and making a cluster analysis of all the quotes of the participants. Their quotes could be grouped into themes, and these themes could sometimes be linked to some of the theory I’d found in my literature research.

The research review resulted in five main insights. These are valuable since they represent theory that has been confirmed in practical research, and point out product opportunities.

Insight #1 | Basic requirements for strategy adoption
As was expected, a number of themes corresponded with aspects that Lyubomirsky calls the ‘Five Hows of Happiness’, which are basically a program of requirements for the successful adoption of a happiness strategy (Lyubomirsky, 2007). The quotes of the participants confirmed the importance of developing a habit, optimal planning and variety, required effort, acceptation, and person-activity fit.

Some quotes that illustrate the importance of planning:
“My life is too much of a chaos to exercise the strategy on a set time every day.”
“I think it works to do things for others when the opportunity arises, in stead of planning such acts beforehand.”
“It’s negative that you have to push yourself to exercising the strategy on set times, but it also satisfying when it pays off.”

Insight #2 | The effect of a strategy on one’s happiness
Participants reported on their changes in positive affect and happiness upon executing their strategy. Although influenced by many factors, the general experience seems to be the same. This is illustrated by the graph below.

When evaluating the effect of the strategies, participants primarily reported a rise in positive affect, and in the awareness of their happiness. The question arises: Are happiness and the awareness of happiness the same thing? I would argue that they are, and that every time one is asked ‘How happy are you? / What is your life satisfaction?’ one makes an appraisal of his life satisfaction. This appraisal can only consist of life aspects that one is aware of. Thus, by increasing the awareness of positive life aspects, the appraisal can be influenced, and one’s life satisfaction can increase.

Some quotes that illustrate changes in happiness, awareness and emotion:
“Shortly after exercising a strategy I became happier. Thereafter the feeling faded away. If one can maintain exercise one can enjoy a continuum of peaks.”
“By recalling memories, I realized how many people are always there for me, which is a beautiful thing.”
“I became aware that I became happiest from some things completely unrelated to my assigned strategy. However, it may be that exercising the strategy led to this realization.”

Insight #3 | The general anatomy of every strategy
Some participants were more creative then others in finding new meaningful things to do, and in the way that they approached their strategies. Some took the instructions very literal, while others paid minor attention to them and customized the strategy to fit their lifestyle. This had a direct effect on the success of the strategies:

Some quotes that illustrate this topic:
“I bought a brownie for a housemate who was learning for an exam. I normally wouldn’t have done this, and it made me feel very happy.”
“I rang some people on the phone, and did things I would have normally done.”
“I was not able to thank someone, because I was unable to step out of my comfort zone.”

From the experience of the participants, a combination of active experimentation and reflective observation yields the best results. This insight can be linked to and supported by the experiential learning theory by American educational theorist David A. Kolb (1984). Just as in Kolb’s model, active experimentation allowed participants to experience new things, and reflective observation enabled them to translate these experiences into valuable lessons.

Insight #4 | How to create behavioral change
All the happiness strategies required the participants to change their behavior. Besides the requirements that Lyubomirsky mentions for adopting a happiness strategy, there is a more abstract framework that can clearly explain some of the experiences of the participants in changing their behavior.
This is the model of behavioral change by Stanford professor BJ Fogg (2009). It claims that for any behavior to occur, there needs to be sufficient motivation, sufficient ability, and something that triggers the behavior to happen at a certain moment.

Some quotes that illustrate the importance of motivation, ability and triggers:
“I was thinking: ‘Nice, I get to work on my strategy again.’ At first it felt more like a favor for someone else, later on it really became my own project.” (motivation)
“A downside is that you need a quiet room to be able to meditate.” (ability)
“I kept the booklet in plain sight on my desk, as a reminder.” (trigger)

Insight #5 | Unforeseen emotions
During the exercise of the strategies, the participants experienced many emotions that influenced their experience. A critical point lies in the preparation phase of every intentional activity, as can be seen in the graph below. Upon deciding to work on their strategy, most participants received a boost in their positive emotions, and felt anticipation, wonder and hope. However, when realizing the commitment and effort that was necessary for the activity, positive emotions decreased.
Furthermore, making plans and not exercising them produced negative emotions such as guilt and frustration. Sometimes participants would give up on the activity altogether. Managing one’s expectations and setting feasible goals proved to be key to increasing the chances of success. Achieving a goal often produced positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction, and pride. When expectations were surpassed, participants were positively surprised.

Some quotes that illustrate the effect of emotions:
“When I started exercising the strategy, I did not find it very important. That caused me to forget about it. Instead of happier, I became frustrated, because I had the feeling I was neglecting something I should do.” (guilt)
“It was motivating to see what I had accomplished with my strategy.” (pride)

Design Focus

Happiness can be defined as Life Satisfaction (Veenhoven, 2002). The appraisal of life satisfaction is a function of the awareness of life aspects and the perceived importance of life aspects. To increase either one of these would benefit the appraisal, and thus one’s happiness. Opportunity in increasing ones happiness lies in changing ones intentional activities through happiness strategies. Some happiness strategies are social. Others are individual. Some are focused on thinking, some on doing. Yet the context research has shown that all include some aspect of active experimentation and contemplation, very similar to Kolb’s experiential learning theory.

During ideation, the focus will be on applying Kolb’s principle in service of Lyubomirsky’s strategies:

The product should stimulate active experimentation and contemplation of a happiness strategy, to allow the user to adopt the happiness strategy with success, and increase the awareness and/or importance of positive life aspects.

During conceptualization, the focus will be on Fogg’s theory on behavioral change:

The product-aspects of motivation, ability and trigger will be developed to increase the persuasive quality of the product.

The personas from the explorative research will be used as a frame of reference, for the evaluation of ideas and concepts. The five ‘hows’ of Lyubomirsky will be criteria for concept selection and the final prototype test and product evaluation. They can be reasonably quantified and tested, and will thus enable a conclusion to be drawn.

The next phase of this project will be the ideation, where the first product ideas will be sketched. More to come very soon!

– Fogg, B. (2009). A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design. PERSUASIVE 2009. Claremont: Springer-Verlag.
– Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning. New York: Englewood Cliffs.
– Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Veenhoven, R. (2002). Het grootste geluk voor het grootste aantal, geluk als richtsnoer voor beleid. Sociale Wetenschappen (4), 1-43.


Saving for Unicef together

Dear all,

I have set up a small experiment in true Christmas spirit. I’ve made four piggy banks to save money for charity. These piggy banks (named ‘Een pot liefdadigheid’ / ‘One Jar of Charity’) should be passed from friend to friend, everyone contributing a small donation. When they have been filled, I hope to receive a call about it (contact information is printed on the piggy banks), so that I can collect them and donate the money to Unicef.

Since the piggy banks may grow to contain considerable amounts of money, it is important that people pass it on to others whom they trust are up to the responsibility of passing it on. If we work together, we will be able to give Unicef this unique donation. All contributors may write their name on a leaflet glued onto the piggy bank.

The Piggy banks for Unicef

Through this experiment, I am trying to study the dynamics of passing on items of value to others. When a piggy bank has been returned to me, I will post the results on this blog.

Best regards,

Results of Explorative Research

It has been a while since my last post. During the last weeks, I have been listening, writing, photographing, watching and discussing with various people about the topic of happiness strategies. After much explorative research I can finally share some of my findings online.

Why do explorative research?

Studying scientific literature in the analysis phase of this project has given me the necessary framework of knowledge to base this project on. Naturally, contemplating this information has brought about new questions. Having found out how various happiness strategies may have a positive impact on our lives, I wondered much about the actual adoption of a strategy. How would people follow these strategies, would they be able to adopt them into their daily lives just by reading a book on happiness? Would they have to face challenges along the way? And would their happiness actually increase as a result?

Sonja Lyubomirsky briefly touches on this subject in her book, The How of Happiness (2007). She claims that there are five ‘hows’ to happiness, which are criteria one has to pay attention to when following a happiness strategy. In short, these are:

1. Positive emotion. The activities of the strategy should generate positive emotions. These are not short-lived, but contribute to the creation of a habit.
2. Optimal timing and variety. Activities should be timed according to one’s lifestyle and should be varies, to make sure the effect does not habituate.
3. Social support. The support of peers can help one overcome the challenges in the way of
4. Motivation, effort and commitment. A happiness strategy is not a quick fix. One will have to be motivated and invest time to make it a success.
5. Habit. By turning the strategy into a habit, it will become more natural and effortless.

To find out more about the dynamics of adopting a strategy, I conducted explorative research on a small scale, and with qualitative methods. This yielded rich information that was inspiring through its personal touch.


I interviewed four people from different life phases and asked them how they experienced happiness, and whether they had any personal strategy to increase or maintain it. I interviewed a second-year student, a graduate student, a senior employed woman and a retired woman. Out of these interviews I made personas that displayed the diversity and complexity of the topic.

Four personas constructed from the interviews

As it turned out, the interviewees from different life phases each had their own source of happiness. For one it was the experience of flow, for the other it was committed goal pursuit and self-development, yet another could savor ordinary pleasures.

This diversity was backed up by a questionnaire I organized among a group of 32 young creative people (mostly IDE students and recent graduates), which were asked to fill in a Person-Activity-Fit Diagnostic (2007). Their top 4 scores were translated into a diagram.

Results from the PAF test

The group showed a liking to the strategies of engagement (68% of the participants had this in their top 4) and savoring life’s joys (59%). Among the low scores were developing strategies for coping and practicing religion and spirituality (both came in at 9%).

The differences between these strategies are striking. My interpretation is that because of their relatively young age, participants have witnessed little loss or trauma, and are therefore not drawn towards strategies such as coping of forgiveness. Practicing spirituality or religion (soul) is a habit more commonly displayed among people of older age, and not among youths of the Northwest European culture.

A hypothesis may be then, that there are correlations between certain life-phase groups and certain strategies, but this would still need to be tested up by a more thorough quantitative analysis.

Happy moments

I asked four people to carry a disposable camera with them for two weeks, and take pictures of the moments during which they experienced happiness. This yielded 60 honest, rich and sometimes hilarious photos. When asking the participants to explain their photos, lengthy stories emerged. As it turns out, happy moments were often constructs of different emotions, such as joy, pride and hope. Meeting or surpassing expectations, being positively surprised, finding a funny moment in a dull environment, reaching an anticipated goal, enjoying the company of friends and family, were all themes among the photos.

Snapshots of happy moments

I was surprised for the participants, happiness would sometimes consist of small things, such as the sight of a tree in fall season, the smell of fresh laundry, or arriving home late and finding that your housemates have saved you some of their dinner.

Upon receiving the camera and assignment, participants became more open and aware of moments that made them happy. When discussing the photos in hindsight, participants experienced the positive memories and emotions related to the picture. In effect, one could say that they were working actively to ‘savor life’s joys.’


To get more insights in the dynamics of strategy adoption, I have followed a strategy myself for two months. I had completed the Person-Activity-Fit Diagnostic and it recommended ‘practicing acts of kindness’ to be a suitable strategy likely of success.

Every week I reserved one afternoon to commit to my strategy. In the course of two months I helped housemates to find items they dearly sought after, improved the shed in the yard of my house, acted as a diplomat in interpersonal conflicts, acted open and friendly towards salesmen, and gave personal presents to friends and family for no reason.

The notorious salesmen of Istanbul

This experience gave me a notion of the aspects that play a role in the adoption of a strategy, and allowed me to prepare for what would be the biggest part of my exploratory research.


The main part of the explorative research was to try out Lyubomirsky’s strategies. I let 15 participants (mostly young creative people) complete a Person-Fit-Diagnostic, and assigned a strategy to them from their top 2. According to literature, choosing a number 1 or 2 strategy increases the chances of success. I was able to find participants for every strategy except for ‘developing strategies for coping’ (for which an explanation can be read above).

For every strategy I assembled a small booklet that contained in brief the instructions and exercises from Lyubomirsky’s book. The also contained some questions and space for writing and drawing. For three weeks, participants followed the instructions and tried to adopt the strategies into their daily lives. Some were asked to think of bright futures, others to savor positive routine experiences, to work on their social relations, or to practice gratitude through writing. After these three weeks the booklets were returned to me, and I was able to interpret and compare them.

The booklets that were returned to me

I hosted two focus sessions, during which I was able to speak to 10 participants about their experience. First of all, the themes that Lyubomirsky deems to be important in the adoption of happiness strategies were verified. Positive emotion, optimal timing and variety, social support, motivation, effort, commitment, and habit were all important aspects that influenced the success of the strategies. Beside these, many other issues came up that can prove to be interesting starting points for design.

Sometimes a too good fit of a strategy with one’s normal activities can decrease the potential of that strategy. It is impossible to say whether the participants have received the strategy that is most effective for them. Participants also believed that the value of different strategies is dependant on the situation and mood of a person. There is no ultimate strategy for every person.
One conclusion then can be that the Person-Activity-Fit Diagnostic is not always sufficient in assigning strategies to participants. Most participants were very curious of other strategies, and would like to try more.

> A toolkit with products that relate to different strategies or aspects of happiness could enable users to experience a variety of strategies, and decide for themselves which ones they would like to adopt.

Some participants were triggered to perform an activity for their strategy on the moments on which they felt an emotion related to their strategy (such as expressing gratitude when feeling grateful). However, most participants were triggered by the booklet, which reminded them of their obligation to perform the activities. Some participants even put the book in plain sight on purpose, to remind them of their strategies. Upon seeing the booklet, participants either felt guilty of the activities they still needed/wanted to perform, or proud of the activities they had performed.

> A product could provide a trigger that evokes prides and enthusiasm rather than guilt and low motivation.

Some strategies stimulated participants to become active and experience new things. Participants found it valuable to be driven out of their ‘comfort zone’. A comfort zone can be seen as a set of behaviors one is used to demonstrate. Being pushed out of the comfort zone can be awkward at first, but will lead to new experiences and new insights.

> A product could stimulate activation, and allow the user to step out of the comfort zone.

Some strategies enabled participants to contemplate their life satisfaction. Through the execution of the strategies, participants claimed to be more aware of the level and source of their happiness; an insight they valued. They often became aware that the strategies they adopted were already part of their life in some way.

> A product could stimulate contemplation.

Guilt and Frustration
A lot of participants experienced guilt or frustration during the adoption of the strategies. When forgetting about the strategies or failing to execute planned activities, the participants felt guilty. When the activities would cost too much time and effort, or when it was hard to find an activity with which to execute the strategy, they would feel frustrated. It seems to be very important that goals are met.

> A product could increase the ability of the user by setting goals that are feasible.

Overall, the participants were interested in the happiness strategies. They believed however, that most people would only search for such a product when being unhappy. Unhappy people would have a higher motivation to improve their happiness than happy people. Participants considered mouth-to-mouth the best option for promoting the product. Since happiness is so personal, claims by people one doesn’t know may not be considered to be valuable or true.

> A product could focus on personal promotion to increase acceptation.


It is obvious and logical that the insights from the explorative research relate very much to behavioral psychology. There are two models that in my mind incorporate the majority of these insights. They are the Experiential Learning model by Kolb (1984), and the Behavior Model by Fogg (2009).

Experiential Learning model by Kolb

The circular model of Kolb shows that effective learning is a continuous process of experimentation and contemplation. Participants lacking either of these elements seemed not to have become much happier. Participants that had incorporated active experimentation and contemplation in their activities had indeed become happier, or more aware of their happiness.

Behavior Model by Fogg

The behavior model of Fogg shows three elements that are necessary in order for a behavior to occur. They are motivation, ability and trigger. When one of these elements lacks, a behavior will not occur. This is an interesting model for design, since products can very much influence the ability of a person, and can also provide adequate triggers.

In the next phase of this project, these insights will be used as starting points for the generation of product ideas. More to come soon!

– Fogg, B. (2009). A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design. PERSUASIVE 2009. Claremont: Springer-Verlag.
– Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning. New York: Englewood Cliffs.
– Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.

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: [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.

Can people increase their own happiness?

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

Determinants of Happiness

Happiness can yield many benefits, but what determines peoples’ happiness? According to contemporary psychology, “happiness can be compared to health in the sense that it is also determined by your genes, the environment around you, and your behavior in life” (Veenhoven, 2009, p.14). Seligman (2003, p.45) presents this finding in the form of an equation, which has been adopted by many scientists.

H = S + C + V

Where H is one’s enduring level of happiness, S is ones set point, C represents one’s life circumstances, and V represents factors under one’s voluntarily control.
As it turns out, the amount of influence that these factors have on the enduring level of happiness is similar for all people, and can be summarized in a pie chart.

Pie chart

Pie chart

As Lyubomirsky (2007, pp.20-21) has found, 50% of happiness is determined by a genetic set point. Counter intuitively, only 10% is determined by life circumstances (whether you are rich or poor, healthy, unhealthy, married, divorced, etc), while 40% is the result of actions under voluntary control.

Genetic set point

Genes determine for a great part our ability to be happy. The genetic set point is our ‘happiness thermostat’. It is very difficult to steer away from this set point, if only momentarily. A study amongst paraplegics and lottery winners showed that upon becoming paralyzed or winning the lottery, paraplegics became very unhappy, and lottery winners very happy. However, when measuring their happiness levels a year later, both groups had nearly returned to their original level of happiness (Gilbert, 2006).

Another effect of the set point is hedonic adaptation. When visiting the city of New York for the first time, Jackson Toby, a Rutgers University professor and friend of my parents told me to savor our visit, because “You can never experience something for the first time twice.”
This in a nutshell, is just what hedonic adaptation means. Every time we have a similar experience, the impact on our emotions and our happiness becomes less. This is why the first taste of a bowl of ice cream might be delicious, but the sensory experience becomes increasingly less pleasurable with every spoonful.
The effect of hedonic adaptation diminishes over time. When not having eaten ice cream for over a week, a first taste will again be delicious, regardless of all the ice cream consumed in the past. “Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation” (Haidt, 2006, p.96).

Research has shown that there are some things that humans never adapt to, such as noise, long commute, a lack of control, shame and conflicts within relationships. These issues either have to be dealt with, or they can decrease a person’s happiness considerably (Haidt, 2006, pp.92-94).

Life circumstances

In 1967, Warner Wilson concluded that the happy person is a “young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence” (1967, p.294). Within the last forty years, science has discovered that some of Wilson’s conclusions were right, and some were wrong.

For example, research has shown that all human beings need enough money to provide their basic needs such as food, water and shelter. Once those needs are fulfilled, money is often insufficient to increase one’s happiness a lot. Researchers have found that some progress can be made by spending money on experiences rather than on material goods (Bennett, 2009). As it turns out, how important money is to people is of greater influence on their happiness than money itself (Seligman, 2003).

More importantly however, is that life circumstances only account for 10% of the variance in happiness. This is backed up by many studies, one of which demonstrates for example that the richest Americans, those earning more than ten million dollars annually, report levels of happiness only slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ (Diener, 1985).

Factors under voluntary control

One of the most surprising findings in positive psychology is the great effect of voluntary controlled activities on one’s happiness. The interesting aspect about this is that while it is impossible to change genetic makeup and impractical to change life circumstances, it is possible to change behavior in daily activities. Thereby people can have the ability to control up to 40% of what makes up their happiness.

However, choosing the right behavior can be difficult. As Veenhoven explains: “We control part of the factors that determine our happiness. Among these are the choices we make in life. We try to choose based upon our expectations of the best outcome, but our expectations are often mistaken” (2009, p.15).

When contemplating future actions, the expected contribution to happiness was once described as (The odds of the gain) * (The value of the gain) (Bernoulli, 1954). Humans are the only species actually able to imagine the future, due to the addition of the frontal lobe at the front of the brain. This enables the brain to anticipate how we would feel if something would happen, and is also called affective forecasting. However, these predictions are affected by cognitive biases, preventing us from planning our future actions the way Bernoulli would want it (Gilbert, 2006).

When assessing our affective forecasts of money and comparing them to research, Gilbert concludes “we think money will bring us lots of happiness for a long time, and it actually brings a little happiness for a short time.”

The frontal lobe forecasts that freedom of choice will bring us more happiness, because individual freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile and essential to being human. But once the amount of options becomes too many, it makes us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied (Schwartz, 2006). This is one of the many examples that shows humans are generally bad at affective forecasting.

To work around the defects of affective forecasting, positive psychologists have been researching what kind of voluntary controlled activities can contribute to happiness.

Levels of voluntarily controlled activities

Seligman (2003) concludes that voluntarily controlled activities can increase life satisfaction on three levels. These levels add to life satisfaction according to the equation below.

Life satisfaction through Voluntary controlled activities = Positive affect + Engagement + Meaning

‘The Pleasant Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by maximizing the amount of experienced positive emotions, and learning the skills to amplify those emotions. There are some drawbacks to this level. First, the ability to experience positive emotion is heritable, and can only be increased by as much as 15-20%. Second, positive emotions habituate rapidly, and thus their impact on one’s life satisfaction can decrease with every subsequent experience.

‘The Good Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by identifying one’s signature strengths and using them in the mansions of life. By re-crafting love, work and leisure to fit one’s strengths, one can experience more engagement in life. Through this, one will derive a state of flow, which is distinct from pleasure because it requires intense concentration, distorts the sense of time, blocks the experience of emotions, but is very satisfying (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

‘The Meaningful Life’ is a level at which one increases life satisfaction by identifying one’s signature strengths, and uses them in the service of something larger than oneself. By contributing to positive institutions for example, one can experience a very profound sense of life satisfaction. Philanthropy is a good example of ways that life satisfaction can be gained on this level.

In conclusion, research has shown that the effect of meaning on life satisfaction is the greatest. The effect of engagement is considerable, but the effect of pleasure is very small. The greatest life satisfaction can be obtained by increasing all levels, and thus living ‘The Full Life’, where the sum is greater than its parts (Seligman, 2004).

– Bennett, D., 2009. Happiness: A buyer’s guide. [Online] Boston Globe Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Bernoulli, D., 1954. Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk. Econometrica, (22), pp.23-36. Originally published as ‘Specimen theoriae novae de mensura sortis’ in 1738.
– Csíkszentmihályi, M., 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
– Diener, E., 1985. Happiness of the very wealthy. Social Indicators Research, (16), pp.263-74.
– Gilbert, D., 2006. Stumbling on Happiness. London: Harper Perennial.
– Haidt, J., 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. London: Arrow Books.
– Lyubomirsky, S., 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Schwartz, B., 2006. TED Talks. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Seligman, M.E.P., 2003. Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
– Seligman, M., 2004. The State of Psychology. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Veenhoven, R., 2009. Een leven lang happy. August.
– Wilson, W., 1967. Correlates of avowed happiness. Pschological Bulletin, (67), pp.294-306.

What exactly is happiness?

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

The science on happiness

Happiness has long been the topic of study in many domains of knowledge: philosophy, physiology, biology, theology, psychology, art, literature, and more. Within this project, the choice for a mainly psychological perspective has been made since psychology is closely related to, and has proven to be useful in relation to the design field. Desmet and Hekkert (2007, p. 64) state that “social sciences, and in particular psychology, offer clear bases for experiential concepts that can structure some of the discussion in the design domain.”

In 1998, the body of research on happiness and subjective well-being (SWB) started to grow rapidly, as Martin Seligman chose ‘Positive Psychology’ as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. In his view, psychology had succeeded in studying and treating mental illnesses, but had neglected the opportunity to study the positive spectrum of human cognition and affect. Where psychology has succeeded in turning people who are feeling bad into feeling average, perhaps positive psychology can succeed in turning people who are feeling average into feeling great.

Positive psychology studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Positive psychologists seek to find and nurture genius and talent, and to make normal life more fulfilling, not simply to treat mental illness (Compton, 2005).

Research is conducted in three main areas (Seligman, 2003).
– The study of positive emotion
– The study of positive traits (e.g. strengths, virtues, abilities)
– The study of positive institutions (e.g. democracy, strong families, free inquiry)
The three pillars are related: positive institutions support positive traits, which in turn support positive emotion.

Definition of Happiness

Happiness is such a broad term that it can be defined in numerous ways. A dictionary would tell us that it is “a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy” (Cambridge, 2009). But what does this state of mind concern? Is it about contentment with our job, social life, or the peanutbutter sandwich we had for lunch today?

Ruut Veenhoven has studied numerous research papers to formulate a definition of happiness that is a bit less ambiguous. He has classified four distinct qualities of life, separating individual from environmental qualities, and potential from actual qualities.
The actual individual result of the qualities of life is the enjoyment of life. This category can be subdivided in four different kinds of enjoyment. One can enjoy life aspects or life as a whole, and an enjoyment can be passing or enduring.
The enduring enjoyment of life as a whole is life satisfaction. This is what Veenhoven defines as happiness (Veenhoven, 2002, pp.6-10).

Veenhoven Tables

Life satisfaction is a central topic of SWB research. Rather than a single specific construct, subjective well-being is an area of scientific interest, including pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, domain satisfaction and life satisfaction. These components can be further broken down into sub-components. For life satisfaction, these are the desire to change one’s life, satisfaction with one’s current life, satisfaction with one’s past, satisfaction with one’s future and the significant others’ view of one’s life (Diener, 1999, p.277).

Happiness Measurement Methods

Although happiness can be defined, it remains a subjective concept, and therefore means different things to different people. For a monk in Tibet happiness may comprise something different than for an average American. The wishes of a person owning a villa, car and plasma television differ from the wishes of a starving child in Ethiopia.
However, the complex concept of happiness can be measured with a surprisingly easy question: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you feeling in general?’ This gives a subjective, but very reliable answer (Veenhoven, 2009).

Benefits of happiness

A growing body of research has shown that happiness has many benefits for people. It boosts physical and mental health, energy levels, immune systems, engagement with social relations and work, and longevity (Lyubomirsky, 2007, p.26). Happiness is likely to benefit one’s families, one’s communities, and society at large (Lyubomirsky et al., 2002).

There has been much discussion whether the relation between happiness and its benefits is correlational or causal. An impressive study of the manuscripts of 180 nuns from Milwaukee revealed a strong causal link between longevity and the amounts of positive feeling expressed in the manuscripts.
As Martin Seligman (2003, p.4) illustrates: “When the amount of positive feeling was quantified by raters who did not know how long the nuns lived, it was discovered that 90 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age eighty-five, versus only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter. Similarly, 54 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age ninety-four, as opposed to 11 percent of the least cheerful quarter.”
What makes this study particularly interesting is the fact that these nuns have lead very similar lives. They all had the same routine, roughly the same diet, did not smoke nor drink, had similar marital histories and belonged to the same economic and social class. Practically all variables have been eliminated, and research has shown this link to be causal.

Research has shown that happiness causes benefits. Interestingly enough, benefits can attribute to someone’s happiness as well, causing an upward spiral of positive emotion. Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) found that “when people feel positive emotion, they are jolted into a different way of thinking and acting. Their thinking becomes creative and broad-minded, and their actions become adventurous and exploratory. This expanded repertoire creates more mastery over challenges, which in turn generates more positive emotion, which further broadens and builds thinking and action, and so on” (Seligman, 2003, pp.210-11).

Upward spiral of positive emotion

– Cambridge, 2009. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Compton, W.C., 2005. An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing.
– Desmet, P. & Hekkert, P., 2007. Framework of Product Experience. International Journal of Design, 1(1), pp.57-66.
– Diener, E., 1999. Subjective Well-Being: Three Decades of Progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), pp.276-302.
– Fredrickson, B. & Joiner, T., 2002. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, (13).
– Lyubomirsky, S., 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Lyubomirsky, S., Diener, E. & King, L.A., 2002. Is happiness a good thing? The benefits of long-term positive affect.
– Seligman, M.E.P., 2003. Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
– Veenhoven, R., 2002. Het grootste geluk voor het grootste aantal, geluk als richtsnoer voor beleid. Sociale Wetenschappen, (4), pp.1-43.
– Veenhoven, R., 2009. Een leven lang happy. August.