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What Makes Us Happy? A Book Review of The How of Happiness

July 19, 2012


The How of HappinessAre you happy? Would you be happier if you got a promotion and raise at work? Would you be happier if you moved to a larger home? For me, the happiness question that has plagued me for over a year is the following:

Would I be happier if I quit my job as a lawyer and blogged full time?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect the answer is no.

And that brings me to a book I recently read–The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

I should say at the start of this review that I’m not a fan of self-help books. But The How of Happiness is not a self-help book, at least that’s not its intent. Instead, it looks at academic studies to assess what makes people happy. And just as important, it explores those things that don’t make us happy. And yes, money is a big topic in the book.

What Doesn’t Make Us Happy?

A big part of the book is addressing misconceptions about happiness. Perhaps the biggest misconception, at least according to the author, is that our circumstances dictate our degree of fulfillment. According to the book, however, circumstances play a small part in the happiness equation:

What Makes Us Happy

The above chart is the centerpiece of Lyubomirsky’s book. Basically, 50% of our happiness comes from genes (thanks mom and dad), 10% comes from our circumstances, and 40% comes from our own thoughts and actions. In other words, we play a very significant role in our own happiness.

And that raises an important question–is she correct about how our circumstances affect our level of satisfaction with life? Certainly there are extreme and often temporary circumstances that can make us miserable. If a loved one dies, that circumstance is going to affect our happiness by a lot more than just 10%. But interestingly, the reverse is also true. If we win the lottery, we’ll no doubt be very, very happy that day. But the happiness we feel from winning the lottery won’t last. And eventually, our circumstances will again play a very small role in our happiness.

Hedonic Adaptation

Can you think back to a time when you were very excited to get a raise? You may have imagined how you would spend the extra money. You may have even celebrated by going out for dinner or taking a vacation. Are you as excited about that raise today, or have you grown accustomed to the increased pay? Welcome to Hedonic Adaptation.

In my words, Hedonic Adaptation simply means that we quickly adapt to the improved circumstances in our life (more money, nicer car, bigger home). As a result, the initial burst of happiness we get will soon wear off. By the way, the same thing happens with tragedy in our life. The death of my father many years ago doesn’t affect my happiness today like it did the weeks and months following his death. We adapt.

And that brings me back to my own question about practicing law. If Lyubomirsky is right, quitting my law practice will have very little impact on my overall happiness. And that seems a bit curious to me.

You’ve probably read about people that have quit their corporate job to work on their own from home. It’s quite appealing. Work on your own schedule. Work anywhere you want. It’s the “Escape from Cubical Nation” type of life that many dream of.

But then again, it can be very lonely. Depending on your personality, you may long for the human interaction you have at work. Work may provide goals for you that help keep you focused.

And all that raises one very big question–if circumstances don’t play a big role in our happiness, how do we make choices about marriage, where to live, how to live, and what to do for a living? In short, what does make us happy?

What Makes Us Happy?

This is the heart of the book. It covers the topic both at a high level (e.g., find activities that interest us) and at a very specific level (e.g., 12 specific activities that can generate happiness). And with a few exceptions, the ideas are not corny (and when they are, the author tells us they are corny, which is refreshing).

I won’t go into the specific activities. You can check those out for yourself. But I do what to cover one of them–committing to your goals. This really resonated with me. As I think back on my life, the most fulfilled times were those in which I was pursuing a significant goal.

In some cases the goals were career related, while in others they dealt with relationships. What’s interesting is that it didn’t really matter what the goal was, so long as it was meaningful to me. When I think back on times in my life that were less fulfilling, they usually involved times when I had no goals to pursue.

And this makes a lot of sense to me. Two of the most difficult times in life are when the kids leave the house and when we retire. Why? I suspect it’s because raising kids and working offer us goals to pursue. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes kids and work can be a real pain. But they both focus us in a way that can be fulfilling. When those are suddenly taken away, a type of depression can set in unless and until we find other goals to pursue.

In the final analysis, I’d give The How of Happiness 3.5 stars out of five. It did help me refocus my thinking in terms of my life’s goals. But I can’s say I’m any closer to deciding whether to blog fulltime. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a book to be able to answer that question for me.


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