Tag Archives: Positive Psychology

The Pursuit of Happiness, A User’s Guide

We hold these truths to be self-evident,

That all men are created equal

That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights

That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness


This is how the United States Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on 4 July 1776 starts.

It’s great line. But how does one pursue happiness? What can one do to be happier? The US declaration of independence doesn’t answer that question, so I have resolved to do so myself. And while there are many, many, ways to pursue happiness, I think they ultimately boil down to three strategies.


The first strategy to be happier is dedication. If you want, you can dedicate your life to pursuing happiness. The best example is the book under the name ‘The Happiness Project’, by  author Gretchen Rubin. It’s quite a thing: one day she decided that she wasn’t happy, and that she wanted to be happier. So, she made a plan.

Her plan was to dedicate one year of life to being happier. In doing so, she identified twelve topics to work on, for instance Marriage, Work, Family Relations, Reading, Spirituality, and so on.

Every month she undertook different projects. In January, she worked on her energy, and started by… cleaning and keeping the house in order. In June, she worked on friendship, and made sure to remember her friends’ birthdays. In July, she worked on money, firstly reducing her dependence on happiness, but also going on a major spending spree. I’ve been told it can be great to buy a new dress.

The dedication strategy is great if you’re a programmatic person. But if you’re not, or if you don’t believe you can plan and organise your way to happiness, you may prefer the awareness strategy.


The idea of Dedication also comes forward in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, a 2006 movie with Will and Jaden Smith


A simpler strategy in the pursuit of happiness is awareness. This strategy I based on the simple assumption that all of us have happy moments. But sometimes we’re just simply too busy to realise our moments of happiness. Life is great, but sometimes we need to slow down to be aware of that.

That’s what the awareness strategy to the pursuit of happiness is based on: registering moments of happiness we all experience. That can be done by journaling, or by a tool called ‘Three Good Things’.

The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley and the grass roots organisation Action for Happiness both promote ‘Three Good Things’ as, in the term positive psychology puts it, an ‘intervention’. The idea is that if you write down three things during the day that made you happy. It’s the best to do it every day ebfore you go sleep. Maybe you sat down for a coffee with a friend. You enjoyed a walk in the sun. And you favourite football team won. It can be very banal. But that’s happiness.

Either way, it will help you to remember and be aware. And it will also focus your spirit the next day. You’ll register moments during the day and think: this will go in my three good things today!


Again, the awareness strategy requires you to put aside some time every day. The third strategy is less time bound. I call it Curiosity. This strategy is based on the idea that we are curious people. Even when we don’t dedicate ourselves to happiness all day, or ensure we’re aware every day, we can develop happiness by being curious.

The idea that by learning about happiness, you can also absorb some of these lessons, and be happier, is one of the ideas behind my blog For A State of Happiness. There are plenty of places where you can learn about happiness.

For instance, there is a great course in the Science of Happiness on the online courses site EDx (enrollment is open!)

Or, there are dozens of TED talks about all aspects of happiness. On how to spend money on gratitude, on irrationality, or compassion. You name and you can find a talk!

Another place to be curious is to read blogs. Of course you can try For A State of Happiness! But there are many. Gretchen Rubin, from the Happiness Project under the Dedication strategy, has a blog. There is a blog of the Minimalists, blogging how a life with less stuff makes them happier. And Action for Happiness shares all kind of happiness facts and tools on their site.

Which strategy works for you?

The US Founding Father’s put it nicely when they stated that the Pursuit of Happiness is our unalienable right. But happiness is so personal. We all pursue happiness in our very own ways. Whether your pursuit resembles the Dedication, Awareness or Curiosity strategy is irrelevant. In either case, I’ll wish you luck on the way to a state of happiness.

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahnemann, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness website, Penn University


The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?


Happiness: it’s not just your genes, stupid!

One of the most quoted facts about happiness goes as follows:

50% of happiness is determined by your genes.

10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which you live.

40% of happiness is determined by your actions, your attitude or optimism, and the way you handle situations.

These figures are often quoted by positive psychologists to back up claims that at least a part of our happiness is man-made. It’s a comforting message: despite the fact that there is a certain genetic disposition to be happy, there are many things in life that we can change to be happy. 40% is a large margin of manoeuvre! Imagine that we could control 40% of the weather, or the traffic on the our way to work.

According to these theories, happiness would look like this:


Source: Funders and Founders, based on material in ‘The How of Happiness’

The famous 50-10-40% formula is prominent in work done by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. Based on a body of research in this field, she and her colleagues argued that approximately 50% of variance in happiness is determined by genes, and 10% of variance in happiness is determined by circumstances. Automatically, that would leave 40% that we can influence.


Except that, there is a lot that’s wrong with the figures and the interpretation.


Variance in happiness does not equal happiness

To start with the first important nuance: these figures explain the variance in happiness - or the variation in happiness between different people. That is, genetic factors – or the presence of heritable personal traits – can explain about 50% of the difference in happiness levels between two people. It’s a small, but important detail. It means that if one person scores a 7 out of 10, and another person scores an 8, 50% of that 1-point difference could be due to genetic traits. That is not the same as saying that for a person that scores an 8, half of its level of happiness, or 4 points, are due to genetics.


Why 50% genetic, and not 40% or 60%?

Where does this theory come from? A 1996 study by Lykken and Tellegen compared well-being levels of samples of pairs of identical and non-identical twins in Minnesota, either raised together or apart. This differentiation allows to test both the impact of same or different genetics (identical vs non-identical) vs same or different environment (raised together or apart), e.g. both nature and nurture effects. Namely, identical twins share the same genes, and non-identical ones do not.

Lykken and Telleken found that the correlation of levels of well-being of identical twins in both cases are around 50%, significantly higher than for non-identical ones (2-8%). As such, they conclude that around half the variation is determined by genetics. This would leave another half determined by other factors. But it is important to note that this particular study has a limited sample. The smallest groups consists of only 36 pairs or 72 people. From a sample of twins in Minnesota, it is hard to draw so strong conclusions for human population as such.


Is it so simple?

The variance in happiness is not the full answer. In a comment of the preference of positive psychologists to favour well-rounded figures, Todd Kashdan notes a couple of other issues with genetics.

The first points is that personal traits – influenced by genetics – are not stable over life. Traits are shaped by a process called ‘emergenesis’. When a characteristic is ‘emergenic’, it is affected by the interaction of a couple of genes together. This might result in a behavioural predisposition to be extravert, self-controlled, or any other trait. (And similarly, there is not one ‘happiness gene’).

So far so good. But the way these genes work out is affected by many other factors. One example Kashdan mentions is that toxins or nutriments in a person’s environment can switch genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. In turn, the functioning of an individual gene can affect such an emergenic factor. If you add or take away a block from a tower, it will look different.

This reminds me of another example I learned about at a course on happiness. A certain individual may have a genetic predisposition for leadership. But if he grows up in an environment where resulting actions are suppressed, the talent will not come to fruition. As such, genes could be seen as ‘enabling’ factors, that only result in an outcome (such as happiness) when underlying conditions are met.


Genes interact with the environment

Another important issue notes is the interaction of genes and environment. In the same article, Kashdan writes that

Much of what influences our personality has to do with the presence of (positive and negative) life events and our response to choice points. Do I approach or avoid my co-worker who regularly demeans me? Do I wake up early and workout or sleep in? Do I ask out the girl I’ve had a crush on for months or do I keep my feelings to myself? No single decision matters but the patterns do. The decisions we make, the people we surround ourselves with, and the behaviors we engage in, are the building blocks for the quality of our lives. Small changes accumulate over time leading to large changes in who we become.

Our personality is the result of a complex process, in which genes and environment interact. Can we really put a hard number on that?


Happiness is not a formula

My answer is no. There is no comfortable formula for happiness. What we can say, is that our genes play an important role in determining happiness. But so do other factors, including our circumstances, environment, and our actions. Happiness is not a hard science. It is a way too complex phenomenon to quantify. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why it is so fascinating.

Rather than like a pie chart with three elements, happiness may rather look like a complex system:

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

Inside Out: our emotions make use who we are

What would happen if our emotions would just disappear? Are we able to regulate our behaviour if we wouldn’t be able to feel joy or sadness anymore?

Those questions form the main idea behind the recent Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie finds a simple solution to represent the complexity of human emotions. The emotions of the main character, the 11-year-old Riley, are steered in her head by five personas: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are represented by coloured characters, jointly managing her actions. Mostly they act in concordance, but sometimes there are conflicts between emotions wanting Riley to feel differently.

Riley's emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

Riley’s emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

For Riley, a happy and positive girl, the energetic personality of Joy is the dominant emotion. Joy doesn’t refrain from bossing around the other four emotions as she deems fit to make Riley feel joyful. Beyond determining how Riley feels, the emotions also serve as administrators of her memory. Every day, they collect her memories (in the form of the colourful balls at the back of the image, and associated with one of the emotions), before they are shipped off to her long-term memory.

Inside Out shows the complexity of interacting emotions, but also demonstrates how our emotions make us who we are. When Riley and her family move from her beloved Minnesota to a small and dirty house in San Francisco, she becomes unhappy. And when Joy and Sadness get lost, Riley is unable to feel these emotions.

Riley’s personality flattens as the remaining emotions Fear, Disgust and Anger are made responsible to administer her behaviour. With a less rich variation in emotions – and no positive emotions – Riley becomes a more grey personality, and the entire tone of the movie changes.

Emotions makes us who we are. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley is not herself anymore. Riley’s inability to communicate with her parents and her schoolmates also demonstrates how important emotions are to make individuals function in a social group. In a way, Riley becomes like a psychopath unable to have feelings. It’s true that psychopaths can commit the most heinous crimes, precisely because of their inability to feel remorse (small parenthesis: it appears that CEOs are more likely than a typical person to have characteristics of psychopaths – it increases the chance of success in business).

Beyond demonstrating the importance of positive emotions that positive psychologists are so interested in, the movie also very visually shows how people and their emotions interact. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is a family dinner, where it shows Riley’s three remaining emotions, but also how all five emotions in her father’s and mother’s head steer the interaction.

As a human being it happens so often that we interact with someone – our partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague – whose reaction we don’t understand. Rather than wondering why they behave as erratically as they do, we could try to image five contrary emotions in their heads, attempting to find an emotional ‘correct’ response. Inside Out’s visual representation of the complexity of emotions does not only make a nice film for children and adults, but also helps us imagine how other people could feel.

Happiness in the past, present and future

Robert Biswas-Diener is one of the most original thinkers on happiness I know. His work provides a smart counterweight to the ‘happiologist’ part of positive psychology. A happiness consultant himself, he observes that within the ‘happiness biz‘, there are a lot of people who appear to see happiness at work as the one and only goal.

Interestingly, Biswas-Diener does not agree. He points that when people are happy, they are likely to have a ‘good enough’ philosophy. Gratitude and acceptance form one aspect of happiness. But being grateful with what you have can also hinder self-improvement. Instead, Biswas-Diener believes in the ‘upside of your dark side’: negative emotions like guilt, grief and anger can drive our actions and help us grow.

This is a very helpful contribution to the discipline of positive psychology, which sometimes appears to believe that acceptance and gratitude can take away real problems. Being positive can help in dealing with problems, but cannot take them away. A positive mindset should inspire real actions to face difficulties.

Happiness is in the past..

Only last week I came across Biswas-Diener’s TED talk, with the tile ‘Your Happiest Days are Behind You’. In his talk, Biswas-Diener answers one of the fundamental questions:

How can I be happier?

The common tendency of individuals is to see happiness as something in the future. One of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they project happiness on goals they haven’t achieved yet. And often, these goals are conflicting:

‘If only I met a nice girl’.

‘If only I had a child’.

‘If only I had that dream job at the Commission.’

‘If only I could work less, and have more holidays’

As Biswas-Diener formulates it: the future is an unreliable sources of happiness. How can we escape from our own expectations about the future? There are various ways out. One of them is by manufactured or ‘synthetic happiness‘, as psychologist Dan Gilbert says. What my answer is, I’ll say below. But first, let’s look at Biswas-Diener’s answer.

The past is the source of happiness…

In his very, very worthwhile talk, Biswas-Diener says that the past, not the future, is the source of happiness. The happiest days are behind you. And with a personal story that I absolutely recommend you to watch, he tells us why he so much believes in the past as a source of happiness. The gist is as follows: by remembering happy moments of the past, you will be able to recreate moments of happiness, and you will experience them again.

Have you watched the story? Can you imagine the race between Robert and the little girl in the slum of Calcutta? Great!

Robert states that memories like this race are the ones that are the answer to the question ‘how can I be happier’. And I agree that remembering happy experience is a very significant part of the answer. But I wonder how reliable the effect remains when one remembers the same memory more often. I would expect there is a somewhat limited life span, as the ‘happiness impact’ of these emotional moments may wear off when you tell or relive the story more regularly.

Compare it to a band playing their hit singles: initially it’s great to see the crowd cheer when they hear your top hit. But if concert after concert, day after day, all the audience wants to hear is the same songs, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. A diverse set of top hits (and happy moments!) thus is important.

… or is it the present?

Therefore, I’d argue that neither the future, nor the past are truly reliable sources of happiness. Instead, I would focus on… the present. Ultimately, our life is lived in the now, not in the future nor in the post. Our aim should be to spent our ‘nows’ – the moment that is easiest to control – in a way that makes us happy. We can go out on a day when the weather is nice. We can do sports, meet friends, or work on goals that are important for us. And by doing so, and appreciating the great moments along the way, we both work on a happy future and create a supply of happy memories that we can enjoy again.

Shawn Achor and the happiness advantage

This post was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. TED’s library contains about fifty talks on happiness. After the post about the flow of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is the second article in my series of articles under the title TED & Happiness. In this talk, I want to introduce Shawn Achor, positive psychologist and happiness researcher. His message is simple: happiness works. With humor and self-mockery, he reveals how our mental well-being is linked to a positive outlook on life.

A positive outlook

Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor, source: Good Think inc.

Shawn Achor begins his twelve minute happy rollercoaster ride with a simple anecdote illustrating how fundamental optimism is for our happiness. Seven-year-old Shawn was a reckless little boy. Playing war, he happened to throw his five-year-old sister Amy from her bed. Tears began to fill her eyes. But he managed to turn the situation around with: “Amy, you landed on all fours. That means… you must be a unicorn!” he said, keeping her calm and avoiding being punished by his parents.

The mechanism is simple, but it works! Changing our lens changes our happiness. Positive psychologists have shown that the way we experience our lives is a factor that explains some of the variation in our happiness (a scientifically important nuance – it does not directly predict our happiness,  though some people, even scholars, believe that optimism always creates happiness). And a happy, positive outlook in turn has a ripple effect, making experiences of life more pleasant: the happiness advantage, as Achor calls it.

See his short pitch of the idea in this video.

Reverse the formula for happiness

Nowadays, our assumption simply is that we need to do. If we do things well, we are successful. And when we become successful, we should be happy. But there is a problem: we are never satisfied. When we reach the finish line, we move the goalposts of success, and start all over again.

Let’s take a look at an example. When we graduate, what we want is a job. When we have a job, we want a better salary. Then we want more responsibility, etc. When we have achieved a goal, we repeat this cycle and look at the next goal, thus continuously pushing success towards a horizon we can never reach.

Achor asks us to reverse the formula. What if we reach success when we are happy? What if we work well, because we are happy? And what if it is happiness that inspires productivity instead of the other way around?

The happiness advantage: accomplishment & gratitude

Happiness starts with simple things. A feeling of accomplishment. Learning, creativity and developments. But above all: gratitude with the achievements of every little day.

Achor has a simple recipe for that. Spend two minutes a day for three weeks thinking about optimism and success. Everyday, write down three new things you are grateful for. If you do that for three weeks, it will have a lasting effect.

That’s the happiness advantage.

Thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.