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.


Probes ready to go

I finished the booklets that will be used for my exploratory research. They contain easy-to-follow guides to various happiness strategies. I am going to hand out the booklets to all people willing to try a happiness strategy for three weeks, so let me know if you’re interested!



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: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/23/happiness_a_buyers_guide/?page=full [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: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html [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: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html [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.

Call for participants

I am looking for people willing to take part in an experiment. I am interested in people’s experiences of following certain happiness strategies. If you want to take part, you will be given two happiness strategies that suit you. For three weeks in a row, I want you to follow both strategies on one day of every week. Details of how to follow the strategies will be emailed to you, but suffice to say that you can spend as much or as little time on them as you wish.

If you want to take part, please write a comment on this post or send me an email at hans.ruitenberg@gmail.com

You can already find out what happiness strategy fits you best by completing the Person-Activity-Fit Diagnostic in the pdf attached to this post. For more information about happiness strategies, download the Happiness Strategy Info Sheet pdf.



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: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=35689&dict=CALD [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.

Some great TED talks on happiness

If you want to know a bit more about happiness and how your mind can play tricks on your subjective well-being, then there are some great TED talks you can watch. They all have a length of about 20 minutes, and the talks by Gilbert and Wright are actually really funny as well.

Daniel Gilbert asks why we are happy
Daniel Gilbert researches happiness
Martin Seligman on the state of psychology
Robert Wright on optimism
Jonathan Haidt on the moral mind

Which products make you happy?

Welcome, reader! You have either discovered this blog in its very early hours, or you have browsed back in time through all the posts until you arrived at this: the very first post on this blog. Both ways, congratulations! I hope you will enjoy reading about my graduation project on Design for Happiness.

To start off, I am looking for products that contribute to people’s happiness. I can imagine that everyone has a product which they love to use, or look at. For me personally it’s my old Ovation acoustic guitar. I received it from my dad as a gift for finishing high-school. It’s a second-hand guitar with some cracks in it, it’s a bit vintage (1979) and it sounds great! I believe that it specifically makes me happy because it helps me to develop my skills as a guitarist, and enables me to experience flow*.

My Ovation acoustic guitar

My Ovation acoustic guitar

What products make you especially happy, and why? If you want to, please post a picture of your product and a reason why it contributes to your happiness. And don’t shy away if a cheese-grater or other less obvious product really makes you happy. I’m interested in your personal opinion.

* Flow is a state of mind where your skills are exactly matched with the challenge you pursue. For a quick explanation of the concept, visit this page.