Monday, July 17, 2017

The How of Happiness Review

Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness summarizes the latest scientific research into the field of Happiness Studies and how most of us can obtain happiness. It doesn't promise that everyone can be happy, as she notes, responsibly, that if your basic needs aren't met and your life is threatened and/or in an abusive situation, it's very difficult to be happy. Though there are rare people that despite their awful situations, are nevertheless happy.

But that's not likely the case for most of us as we do need to be safe and have our basic needs met before we can actualize. It's interesting as the field of Happiness Studies, in effect, has shown that the primary goal of all societies SHOULD be eradicating poverty and violence, so that we can then move to the goal of being happy.

Further, Dr. Lyubomirsky also notes that if you're clinically depressed, and she includes a short depression scale to see if you may be depressed, to see a psychiatrist as she responsibly notes that you can't go from being depressed to being happy and fulfilled. It's like having a leg fracture, but then expecting to run a marathon.

As for preparation before seeing a psychiatrist, she has an excellent section at the end of the book that describes the various antidepressants, and what to expect, so as to make your visit to the psychiatrist not scary and daunting. It's an impressive section, as I was wondering, did she read and master Stahl's Essential Psychopharmacology: Neuroscientific Basis and Applications? She's not advocating the b.s. that "everyone can be happy", but you can be if you put in the effort and seek necessary help.

For most of us who do have our basic needs and safety met, and don't fall under the clinically depressed range, we can be happy, rather than merely living a daily grind.  She also spends part of the book going into the empirical research that shows that as long as we fit that criteria, we can be happy. The other extremely interesting thing about a lot of these happiness exercises, is that they're free or inexpensive, and some aren't time-consuming, so it's doable for us.

In other words, they are practical to implement, and not out of reach for most of us. For instance, I've literally read some self-help books that say, "write a best-seller" as the royalties will help financially (as if we can all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King), or travel to enjoy new, interesting experiences, as if we all have thousands of dollars to blow on exotic travels.

After discussing the above caveats, the author then outlines steps, as well as pitfalls that we may face during this journey in achieving happiness. She writes in a very clear, easy to read, and interesting manner. Martin Seligman, M.D., considered one of the fathers of the field of Happiness Studies, often refers to her work, I think because of her very clear and engaging writing style.

A lot of self-help books don't address the pitfalls, so this book is remarkable in that she adds a lot of trouble-shooting and other examples to follow if the recommendations don't seem to be helpful to you. Here are some of the pitfalls she addresses:

The first pitfall is the cynicism, as the 12 categories you can do to be happy will make most of us snicker and cringe, such as "expressing gratitude", "random acts of kindness", "nurturing relationships" and other platitudes.

However, the author goes into the scientific research into why these activities increase happiness, and different ways of implementing these exercises that they no longer sound cheesy, but rather uplifting and refreshing. I found the exercise in gratitude especially compelling (that is, to me, as everyone is different) because reading my journal of appreciation, I was in tears with the realization of how fortunate I am.

The second pitfall is that there's sure to be very perfectionist/OCD people out there who will do every activity to the exact letter, thereby burning out. Or if not able to implement every single step, to feel depressed and a failure. The author does a superb job in explaining the importance of choosing activities that you actually enjoy and have time to do, and to avoid doing those exercises in a duty/chore/routine manner that will fuel resentment. The goal is to be happy, after all, and not feel defeated.

I think this is one of the strengths of the book, for us to find the exercises that we enjoy and create our own ways to be happy that's individualized, rather than following a program like a robot. So, if you cringe at expressing gratitude, there are other activities that you can chose, and they're quite varied, so all personality types will find something we'll enjoy.

Lyubomirsky also includes questionnaires to help you hone in on what activities you'll most likely enjoy, and based on your likes, she cross-references other categories that you can pursue. Some of these exercises don't even take time for those who are extremely busy, such as being present in the moment, even while working. 

In other words, she gives out practical, doable activities that anyone can accomplish, most of them free activities and/or not taking up time if we're strapped for time and resources.

The third pitfall is how to continue to motivate yourself as we tend to go back to our normal routine and old habits, as it does take effort to implement and be creative. Again, Lyubomirsky describes steps to help motivate yourself to get back on track, and most importantly, to be kind to yourself if you "slide".

The book was especially helpful to me in outlining the scientific studies showing that these categories do in fact lead to happiness. I also appreciate the book addressing the myths we have that make us happy, which actually don't lead to happiness in the long-run. So you can avoid these myths, and pursue the activities that truly do lead to happiness, per scientific data. You can be assured that you're not "wasting your time" doing these enriching, scientifically-backed, activities, and avoid the myths that will just waste your time, money and efforts.

I will point out a couple of examples, as it's beyond the scope of the review to outline all the myths, and the scientifically-backed happiness activities. I remember being very happy when I got my first ever iPhone, which was the 6 Plus. I took such good care of it and admired it at first.

But after a few weeks (or even less?), I'm like "whatever".  Fast forward 2 years later, I actually drop the iPhone with a blase attitude, and I've seen my coworkers also dropping their expensive, even new smart phones, also with a whatever attitude: not one coworker "gasped" when they dropped their phones.

Maybe I have such a jaded attitude toward the iPhone 6 Plus, because I'm bored with it, and that if it breaks (so I don't really care if I drop it by accident), that would give me an excuse to get a new, exciting phone. But then, this new phone will get boring, and the cycle continues.

At any rate, this shows that achieving wealth and material possessions beyond the basic necessities, such as getting the coolest thing, is very short-lived and un-sustaining, and doesn't lead to happiness. If you forgo the materialism, it's a true win-win situation: you save money and pay your bills/debts, and you can do something else that's more fulfilling.

However, it "never gets old" being with my friends, even while doing boring chores together, and it's always fun and joyful petting and playing with my cats, so the mantra of "nurturing relationships" really is a happiness activity, and is actually fun, basically free and practical to do. Unlike the iPhone, no one ever has the thought of wanting new cats/dogs to replace your loved, old pets.

Rating: A+.  I would recommend going to your local bookstore and/or library to check out the book first, take notes if you find anything helpful, and to get a copy if and only if you find the book useful.


  1. I won't claim to be an expert in Psychology, whilst I do find it fascinating, it's a hell of a big subject to just dive into, other interests withstanding. From what I do know however, this appears to be largly credible. lot's of studies have been performed in the pursuit of happiness, and it line's up nicely with what you talked about here.

    There are a couple things I disagree with however, you mentioned how people in unfortunate circumstances won't be able to find happiness, yet I feel, putting it rather bluntly, that this is somewhat misguided. A person can be homeless, terrified for their wellbeing, cold and uncomfortable on the concrete, and yet as they become more accustomed to their environment, they will still be able to find happiness. Just how the phrase "money doesn't buy you happiness" talk's about how even the richest man on earth will be no more happier than the average man, their problem's just become more trivial, a troubled man will find their happiness come's from the smallest if places people wouldn't usually think to look. Naturally someone who sleeps in their car is going to be less happy than someone who sleeps in a warm bed every night, but it doesn't mean that they can't enjoy life in circumstances like that.

    Secondly, you mentioned, how you put it, "the primary goal of all societies SHOULD be eradicating poverty and violence." Now in theory this sounds fantastic, nobody's causing trouble, there is no bad in the world, however I'd like to turn your attention to a lesson from religion teachings, Christianity to be precise, though I'm sure it shows up in other religion's as well. In a sentence, they believe that we must experience evil, if we are to recognise the good in the world. They believe in a necessary evil, that people need demon's for them to experience the good in life, because without the bad, everything become's mundane. (correlating to my other point) Without death, we wouldn't be able to appreciate life. Without poverty, we wouldn't be able to appreciate our well being. Without hatred there wouldn't be love.

    I have no doubt this book is a very good resource as a glimpse into psychology, everything else you written about it more than prove's that, I'll add it to my reading list for sure. However it is important we don't just take the author's word for it, instead questioning the book and comparing it to what we already believe, coming up with our own hypothesis's and beliefs on the matter.


    1. As an aside, here is a resource for my second point ( ), the sources they have used can be found in the video description.


    2. I completely agree, there are very rare, incredible people who, despite their awful environment, can be happy; we call these individuals resilient, and indeed, there are a lot of resilience studies out there.

      I think what the author is getting at is that if you're living in a war-torn zone where your life is at risk on a minute-by-minute basis, or in an incredibly abusive relationship where your life and safety is at risk and you're being sexually, physically and emotionally abused for most of the day, it's hard for most of us to be happy.

      However, the encouraging part of the book is that for most of us, who are fortunate enough to be in stable situations, we can be happy, even if we're not wealthy, married and so on and so forth. I think the book wants to outline the pitfalls of thinking that anyone can be happy, regardless of the situation. And even if lemons are thrown our way, we can still be happy, though it takes work.

      I agree, a lot of the world religions do see the dichotomy of good and evil, I think Buddhism really hones in on that idea, that there can be no good if there's no evil, but all major religions promote relieving suffering as one of the highest callings (i.e. charity, love, and so on and so forth), and that we must do everything to relieve suffering and abuse. The emphasis on kindness in major religions is at the forefront of their teachings, I feel.

      I find the book is a good starting point into looking into these questions of happiness, and I think it's important that anyone comes to their own conclusions,and not take any particular teachings at face value.

      I'll definitely look into your link!

  2. It's true, it is more difficult to keep your chin up when times are rough, the question to ask there is whether they should still try to achieve it or not. It's a difficult subject to answer, there isn't entirely a definite answer at the moment, because pulling that off can be very exhausting and demotivating.

    You raise a food point that religions do still do a lot of charity work, and I do agree we should stand to help those we can when they need it. it is a very important part to religion and I'm glad you mentioned it, I don't feel I got my point across particularly well there. I guess what I was trying to say is that whilst it is still a noble goal, whilst it is something we should be doing just because helping other's is very important to us as people, it is almost an impossible goal by virtue of that's just how life works. Life has it's high's and low's, and we simply got to accept that.


  3. It's very sad that we as humans can't band together and work for the collective good, as there are worldwide atrocities and will always be, but if we can help others on an individual basis, it would at least make the world better for at least one person.

    i find the book fascinating b/c she used science that, on an empirical basis, backs up spiritual truths such as importance of being in the moment, helping others, fostering positive relationships, generosity, etc. So those who think spiritual truths are b.s., we have science to show that they ARE based on reality and they do work.

    when times are really rough, yes, people should still strive to be happy by getting help, relying on others for the time being, problem-solving and the like, b/c once they do become happy and move to a better situation, they in turn, can help others once they've empowered themselves, and so on and so forth. then by helping others, once this group gets better, then they can help others, in a positive cycle going forward!


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