Back to Health  |  More Profiles

Explore More: Read Online Magazine

Sonja Lyubomirsky

Professor of Psychology
Sonja Lyubomirsky
Examining the How of Happiness
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research addresses three critical questions: “What makes people happy?” “Is happiness a good thing?” and “How and why can people learn to lead happier and more flourishing lives?” Her research has been awarded a Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, a Science of Generosity grant, a John Templeton Foundation grant, and a million-dollar grant (with Ken Sheldon) from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

Areas of Expertise

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Templeton Positive Psychology Prize ($50,000), John Templeton Foundation and APA
  • Faculty of the Year Award, Department of Psychology, UCR (1999–2000)
  • Faculty Mentor of the Year, University Honors Program (1999–2000)

Research Summary

Positive psychology, the study of optimal human functioning, a relatively new direction that examines how ordinary people can become happier, stronger, and more fulfilled.

Q&A

Q: What is the field of positive psychology? Is it a new field?
Positive psychology is the study of optimal human functioning. Psychology traditionally focused on dysfunction—on people with mental health conditions or other psychological problems and how to treat them. In contrast, positive psychology is a relatively new direction that examines how ordinary people can become happier, stronger, and more fulfilled.

Q: Why is the scientific study of happiness important?
Studying happiness is important because most people believe happiness is meaningful, desirable, and a worthy goal.  As one of the most significant dimensions of human experience and emotional life, happiness yields numerous rewards for the individual, and makes for a better, healthier, stronger society as a whole.  Furthermore, in addition to considering personal wellness, researchers and policy makers have become interested in societal wellness. In recent years, Canada, France and Britain have included citizen happiness to their official national statistics, Bhutan measures key indicators of "Gross National Happiness," and the U.S. government is also considering a happiness index. The goal is to focus policy-making on creating conditions that lead people to live fulfilling and happy lives.

Q: Why are some people happier than others?
One of my approaches has been to explore the cognitive and motivational processes that distinguish individuals who show exceptionally high and low levels of happiness. These processes include social comparison (how people compare themselves to peers), dissonance reduction (how people justify both trivial and important choices in their lives), self-evaluation (how people judge themselves), and person perception (how people think about others). All of these processes, it turns out, have hedonic implications — that is, positive or negative consequences for happiness and self-regard — and thus are relevant to elucidating individual differences in enduring well-being.
My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways.

Q: What are the two most common myths about happiness?
The first myth is what I call "I'll be happy when ...".  Many people say or think, "I'm not happy now but when I get that job I wanted, when I move to the city I've always wanted to live in, when I get married, when I have a baby ... then I'll be happy."  The problem is that these things don't make us as happy for as long or as intensely as we think they will. The primary reason is called hedonic adaptation — namely, because human beings have an extraordinary ability to get used to and take for granted positive changes in their lives.
The second myth is the flip side of the first: When something really negative happens such as falling ill or not making a lot of money or getting divorced, we feel like we're going to be unhappy forever. What research shows, however, is that humans are remarkably resilient.  These negative events almost never make people as miserable as they think they will.

Q: What is the one thing that people should know about achieving happiness in their own lives?
Despite the fact that our happiness is partly genetically influenced and despite the fact that our life circumstances have a surprisingly small influence on how happy we are, a large portion of our happiness is in our power to change by the way we think and act in our daily lives. Investing in relationships — expressing gratitude, doing acts of kindness, trying to be supportive, and staying positive — will probably contribute to our happiness and health more than anything else.

Q: How is your research being used?
My research has led me to write two books, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want and The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does.  Both can be used as tools to foster happiness, flourishing, and resilience in your lives. The How of Happiness has already been used by countless individuals — as well as mental health professionals, schools, companies, and organizations — to improve well-being, productivity, and health.

Q: Why is UCR a great place to do research?
The short answer is that I have had terrific, supportive colleagues and absolutely fantastic students.  My graduate students in particular are the drivers of my research and they inspire and engage me every day.  The Department of Psychology at UCR is exceptional; I can't imagine being anywhere else.

Q: What movies, documentaries or TV programs have you recently found interesting and/or inspiring?
When it comes to television, my recent guilty pleasures are Homeland, House of Cards, and Downton Abbey. They have great characters and great stories, and, as a psychologist, this matters immensely to me.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote, book, or poem?
The philosopher William James wrote, "My experience is what I agree to attend to."  I believe the quote is quite remarkable. It suggests that what you focus on determines your experience. You can choose to focus on the positive or the negative.

Q: What makes you happy?
Freud suggested that lieben und arbeiten — "to love and to work" — are the secrets to well-being, and that has certainly been true for me.

Sonja Lyubomirsky “A large portion of our happiness is in our power to change by the way we think and act in our daily lives. Investing in relationships — expressing gratitude, doing acts of kindness, trying to be supportive, and staying positive — will probably contribute to our happiness and health more than anything else.”

—Sonja Lyubomirsky
Living The Promise Report Explore More: Read Online Magazine