The Myths of Happiness: An Interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky

We were excited and grateful to speak to Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD - she's a groundbreaking researcher on happiness and one of the leaders of positive psychology. Not only does she have a professorship gig at UCLA, Riverside, she is also author of the popular, The How of Happiness, and her latest work, The Myths of Happiness. Let's talk about her latest opus...

In the The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s new book, she details the many ways we fall into dissatisfaction in our relationships, work, and life. In addition to giving us the tools to recognize these pitfalls, she also gives advice on how to avoid them.

We had an opportunity to ask her a few of our burning questions. Check it out, below.

In your new book, you talk about how just about everyone can find fault with their job -- it’s always easy to fantasize about a better scenario.

What are some ways to appreciate what we’ve got and let the rest slide off our back?  

There’s always some dimension on which our job… doesn’t meet or expectations, [or] could be better. That’s true for anything in life really – your house, your relationships – and so I talk a lot in my new book about the importance of appreciation, to really focus on the positive things. So let’s say there are seven positive things about our job and three negative things. We tend to focus on the negatives. The negatives are much more powerful, in fact, research suggests that they have a double punch over positive – they’re twice as impactful. So we want to really focus on the positive: focus on the fact that you have really nice colleagues, or that you don’t have a commute, or that you can schedule your time flexibly. Whatever it is that you like about that job.

For dealing with stress, one of my favorite strategies is to ask yourself, ‘will this matter in a year?’ or ‘will this matter in six months?’ or ‘will this matter in a month.’ So whenever there’s a stressful situation, sort of ask yourself, is this something that’s going to continue forever? Maybe it will. Maybe you’re boss is really terrible and he or she is not going away. But, many times, it’s just something that’s transient. And so, focus on the big picture. Focusing on the big picture can help dampen that stress.”

One surprising point that you make is that achieving the success we thought we wanted can actually have negative effects, making mildly positive experiences seem dull, and slightly negative experiences seem terrible. It seems difficult to redefine success without being influenced by external pressures -- to be truly intrinsic.

Are there guidelines we should consider when defining our goals or what we consider ‘success’? 

It is difficult to be truly intrinsic because there are so many messages from our family, friends, movies, literature, the media that success will bring us happiness, that money will bring us happiness, that certain kinds of achievements will bring us happiness. And often, when we do attain those things, we are thrilled for a time, but then we adapt, we start taking them for granted, and then we just want more and more.

It’s just the more intrinsic goals that make people more sustainably happy. Three aspects of intrinsic goals are:

1) doing something that allows you to grow as a person – personal growth,

2) anything that helps you connect with other people, and 

3) anything that helps you contribute to the world, to the community – help others.

So, if you can reframe your goals about those three aspects (connection to others, personal growth, and contributing to society)if you call that success – then that’s going to give you a more enduring happiness because those kinds of success will reinforce each other. When you make more connections, when you grow as a person, it means you’ll learn even more, you’ll build new relationships. It will be self-perpetuating and maintain and increase happiness.

Some of your recent work has touched on how well a particular positive intervention suits a particular person (maybe I like making gratitude lists, but my husband detests it). 

Can you tell us a little bit about what we should consider when deciding on positive interventions for ourselves?

Person activity fit is really really important. I think it’s actually a reason that a lot of people don’t like self-help books. They read the books and they think, “Well, that’s not for me. I don’t want to count my blessings.” Or, “I don’t like to meditate.” Or whatever it is that the book urges people to do. The key is to find what feels natural for you. What you enjoy doing most. The easiest way to do that is to just choose what you feel is the best fit. I give people a list of different kinds of activities. Do you want to meditate? Do you want to exercise with a buddy? Do you want to try to learn to be more forgiving? Do you want to try to write a gratitude letter? Which of those feels more suitable, more appropriate, more fun, more natural for you? That actually works really well. I’ve tried to do research where I try to match people based on personality, like, would extraverts or people who are more artistic prefer to do one activity over another, but really, I think the best way is just to choose, ourselves. And then, to keep trying different things.

Part of what we do at WOOPAAH is encourage adults to play – to let loose and be a kid again, full of wonder and curiosity.

How might play overlap with your research or previous findings?

[I’m not an expert in play, but] I think that play is really relevant to happiness. I mean, when you’re playing, you’re basically exploring, you’re being curious, you’re often playing with other people. You’re connecting, you’re maybe taking risks, so all of these things – there’s novelty involved – there’s variety involved. Play isn’t usually the same every time. There might be some challenge. There might be some surprises. All of these are features of situations that people don’t adapt to as fast. Anything that’s sort of the same, [where] there are no surprises, no novelty, it’s familiar, we tend to adapt to those kind of situations and then we don’t feel happy anymore. But play involves all these features that prevent you from adapting, prevent you from taking for granted. Everytime you play a game… my family’s gotten into Scrabble lately. Every time we play, there’s something fun and different about it. That’s maybe a silly example, but there are lots of different kinds of play. I think it’s very relevant to happiness.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on lots of really exciting things. There’s a study that we’re doing collaborating with researchers in London with twins. These were several hundred identical and fraternal twins that did a positive intervention. They both tried to write gratitude letters and did acts of kindness, and all of the twins were teenagers. We found that we made those twins happy, and now we’re analyzing the data to see if there’s a genetic basis for who responds to positive interventions and who doesn’t. The idea is that, maybe when some people write gratitude letters, they get really happy. Other people don’t get as happy, and that attribute, that characteristic might be heritable. So that’s really exciting.

We recently finished a study in Madrid at Coca-Cola, which was a really cool study. We just wrote it up and submitted it for publication. It was kind of like a Secret Santa manipulation. We asked randomly assigned employees at Coca-Cola, to be givers – to do acts of kindness for their colleagues, and we gave them a list of their colleagues and said, okay, you can choose anyone on this list and do acts of kindness for them every week. And so that’s why I call it a Secret Santa, because the recipients didn’t know they were on these lists. And what’s amazing is that the recipients, the receivers of the acts of kindness got happier right away, the givers also got happier and felt more connected to others and felt more flow in their work, but it took longer. Even, I think, 4 months after the study, the givers were still less depressed than everyone else, and, more important, it turns out, more people in the work place started doing positive, generous behaviors toward one another, so, when you see other people give, you get inspired. The receivers were also inspired to pay it forward or to pay it back. So that was a really cool study.


To learn more about what you might mistakenly think will provide you with happiness, and how you can avoid chasing it, pick up Sonja’s book. Meanwhile, you can read her article in Psychology Today on 7 Myths of Happiness.


Genevieve Douglass is a composer and researcher at WOOPAAH. She also consults in NYC on motivation, burnout, and vitality, writes about various psychological phenomena, and enjoys frollicking in the park with her two tan dogs and pale husband.