A young man reading a book outside in a field.

Have you tried to find happiness and fallen short? Do you have clarity on what makes people—especially you—happy?

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky unpacks the factors that fuel long-term happiness and provides practical strategies to nurture and sustain it. She draws from extensive research as well as insights from leading scientists in the positive psychology field.

Continue reading for an overview of this book that can help you understand—and find—happiness.

Overview of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness

Happiness is more than just a positive state of mind—it’s a state of being that enhances your health, strengthens your relationships, and fuels both your creativity and productivity. However, though many people are aware of these benefits and try to feel happier, their efforts often fail to create consistent, long-term happiness.

(Shortform note: Research supports the idea that many people in the US find it difficult to feel happy. The General Social Survey found that only 14% of Americans report feeling “very happy”—the lowest number since the survey began in 1972.) 

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky—psychology professor and recipient of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize—addresses this challenge.

We’ll cover Lyubomirsky’s ideas in three parts: 

  • Part 1 explains three factors that determine your long-term happiness: genetics, circumstances, and thoughts and behaviors.
  • Part 2 presents research-based strategies for enhancing long-term happiness.
  • Part 3 explores why it’s important to personalize the happiness-boosting strategies and provides guidance on customizing your path to happiness.

Part 1: Understand How Genetics, Circumstances, and Behaviors Impact Happiness

We’ll first explore the factors that determine how happy you feel throughout your life. This information will help you understand which factors you can control and where to direct your efforts to enhance your long-term happiness. According to Lyubomirsky, three main factors influence your overall happiness, to varying degrees:

  1. Your genetics influence 50% of your long-term happiness.
  2. Your circumstances influence 10% of your long-term happiness.
  3. Your thoughts and behaviors influence 40% of your long-term happiness. 

Let’s explore Lyubomirsky’s insights into how each of these factors influences your happiness.

Genetics Influence 50% of Your Long-Term Happiness

Lyubomirsky states that your genetics influence 50% of your long-term happiness and determine your “happiness baseline.” Simply put, your genes define the default level of happiness you typically feel, regardless of life’s ups and downs.

Lyubomirsky cites studies on identical twins with identical genetic codes to support her theory. Regardless of whether the twins in these studies grew up together or were separated at birth and raised in different environments (for example, one may have grown up in poverty and the other amidst luxury), their happiness levels often mirrored each other. Meanwhile, studies of fraternal twins—who have different genetic codes—found no consistent correlation in their happiness levels whether they shared the same upbringing or lived apart. 

This research implies that—unless you’re an identical twin—your genetic code, and therefore your happiness baseline, is unique. You might have a high baseline, meaning you consistently feel upbeat even during tough times, or you might have a low baseline, meaning you tend to feel down even when life’s going well.

Circumstances Influence 10% of Your Long-Term Happiness

According to Lyubomirsky, your circumstances account for just 10% of your long-term happiness. She clarifies that while major life events may impact how happy you feel—for example, you might feel happier when you get married or less happy if you lose a loved one—big shifts will usually be temporary. Over time, you’ll naturally revert to your happiness baseline (established by your genetics). Lyubomirsky attributes this transient effect to a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.

Hedonic adaptation refers to your innate ability to eventually adapt to new situations, positive or negative. For example, the elation you feel after earning a promotion dissipates once you become accustomed to the new role and its benefits. Likewise, the intense grief you feel after a breakup lessens as you adjust to single life. Lyubomirsky cites various studies to support this concept, including one revealing that the happiness boost newlyweds experienced lasted only two years before they reverted to their pre-marriage baseline.

She identifies two tendencies that drive hedonic adaptation: First, when your circumstances improve, your expectations and desires often rise in tandem. For example, buying a sleek new car makes you happy until you get used to it and start eyeing even more luxurious models. Second, you often measure your achievements against others’. For instance, you feel happy with your new car until you notice your neighbor owns a higher-end model. As a result of these two tendencies, no matter how dramatically your circumstances change, your happiness tends to revert to your baseline over time.

Thoughts and Behaviors Influence 40% of Your Long-Term Happiness

Our discussion so far implies that you can’t enhance happiness over the long term because, even if your circumstances make you happy, you’ll eventually get used to them and revert to your happiness baseline. However, Lyubomirsky stresses that, while you can’t change your happiness baseline, you can control 40% of the happiness you feel by consciously choosing to think and behave in positive ways.

But, what about genetics—don’t they dictate your happiness baseline and therefore how happy you feel over the long term? Yes and no: Lyubomirsky explains that, though genetics play a key role, they don’t have the final say on your happiness. Your genes predispose you to certain emotional outcomes, but the extent of their influence depends on a combination of factors, including your environment, experiences, and behaviors. For example, someone might have a genetic predisposition to depression, but if they grow up in a supportive environment and practice good mental health habits, they might never experience depression. 

This means that even if you’re genetically predisposed to a low-happiness baseline, you can feel just as happy as someone with a high-happiness baseline. You just have to shape your environment and invest more effort into thinking and behaving positively than that person might.

Further, while the impact of circumstances on your happiness tends to diminish over time, Lyubomirsky suggests that deliberately adopting positive thoughts and behaviors in day-to-day life inhibits the hedonic adaptation process, prolonging the happiness you derive from good circumstances.

Part 2: Happiness-Boosting Strategies

We’ve just explained the factors that impact happiness: Genetics determine your happiness baseline, circumstances influence it temporarily, and positive thoughts and behaviors can offset genetic constraints while also prolonging happiness that stems from circumstances.

Since you can’t alter your genetic code and have only a certain degree of influence over your circumstances (and even then, perfect circumstances bring only fleeting happiness), it follows that the most effective way to boost long-term happiness is to cultivate positive thoughts and behaviors.

Lyubomirsky suggests that you can encourage positive thoughts and behaviors by practicing happiness-boosting strategies across three life areas:

  • Mental and physical health
  • Relationships
  • Purpose

Area #1: Mental and Physical Health

Lyubomirsky argues that good mental and physical health enhances long-term happiness by providing a solid foundation for a fulfilling and balanced life. She recommends three health-enhancing strategies:

  1. Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Exercise regularly, follow a balanced diet, and ensure you get adequate sleep.
  2. Abstain from overthinking and social comparison: Designate specific times to challenge and reframe worries, journal to clarify and release troubling thoughts, manage triggers that induce overthinking or comparisons, practice meditation, or seek therapy.
  3. Foster a positive outlook: Maintain an aspirational diary that captures your hopes for the future; keep a gratitude journal; and prolong appreciation for what’s going well in your life by discussing what you’re thankful for with friends, expressing thanks to others, or reminiscing about pleasant events.

Lyubomirsky suggests that these three strategies enhance long-term happiness by helping you strengthen your mental and physical resilience, deepen your appreciation for life, and live authentically. Let’s delve into each of these three benefits.

Benefit 1) Strengthen Mental and Physical Resilience

Lyubomirsky explains that adopting a healthy lifestyle improves brain functionality, counteracts anxiety and depression, and helps your immune system effectively respond to health challenges. These positive effects condition your mind and body to be less reactive to external stressors—enabling you to adopt effective coping strategies for facing adversities with composure.

Additionally, drawing joy from memories of the past or anticipating future pleasures helps counteract negative emotions by calming worries and preventing emotional overwhelm. Lyubomirsky says this helps you handle stress more effectively and respond rationally to challenges and obstacles.

Benefit 2) Deepen Appreciation

According to Lyubomirsky, regularly acknowledging and expressing thanks for what’s going well in your life enables you to find joy even in mundane experiences or when life isn’t going to plan. This attitude helps combat the effects of hedonic adaptation, prolonging the pleasure you derive from your circumstances.

Benefit 3) Live Authentically

Lyubomirsky suggests that acknowledging your unique qualities and achievements curbs comparisons that might otherwise lead to feelings of envy or resentment. The less you compare yourself to others, the less likely you are to tie your value to what people think about you. This attitude shift naturally elevates your self-esteem and sense of self-worth, enabling you to comfortably be who you really are instead of who you think you should be.

Additionally, Lyubomirsky clarifies that freeing your mind from ruminative thoughts and comparisons with others clears mental space and lowers stress levels, making it easier for you to come up with ideas and solutions that help you live a more productive and fulfilling life.

Area #2: Relationships

According to Lyubomirsky, relationships play an important role in your happiness—strong relationships provide you with happy moments to share and a support system for when things get tough. She suggests three relationship-strengthening strategies:

  1. Be kind: Allocate specific times in your week for altruistic acts or deepening your compassion through understanding and empathizing with others.
  2. Nurture your relationships: Set aside quality time with loved ones, express affection openly, manage conflicts constructively, and show genuine interest in others.
  3. Forgive and move forward: Reflect on personal growth from past hurts, understand the perspectives of those who’ve wronged you, and engage in rituals that symbolize letting go.

Lyubomirsky says that these three strategies enhance long-term happiness by helping you cultivate deep, authentic bonds, make space for positive emotions in your life, and resist hedonic adaptation. Let’s explore each of these benefits in detail.

Benefit 1) Cultivate Deep, Authentic Bonds

Lyubomirsky explains that practicing compassion and kindness builds trust—which encourages you and your friends to be authentic, compassionate, and generous with one another.

Additionally, Lyubomirsky argues that nurturing diverse friendships, romantic partnerships, and family ties deepens your sense of belonging and bolsters your network of support and emotional comfort.

Finally, Lyubomirsky says that forgiving others, whether it involves reconciliation or not, fosters empathy and understanding, paving the way for genuine bonds.

Benefit 2) Make Space for More Positive Emotions in Your Life

According to Lyubomirsky, letting go of past hurts creates space for positive emotions by alleviating negative emotions such as resentment, anger, depression, and anxiety.

Further, Lyubomirsky explains that engaging in acts of kindness diverts your attention from personal troubles, allowing you to focus on gratitude for your good fortune. 

Benefit 3) Resist Hedonic Adaptation

Engaging in meaningful relationships can reaffirm your value and boost your self-esteem. Lyubomirsky argues that these benefits provide resistance against hedonic adaptation and ensure a more stable source of happiness—when you feel sure of yourself, you’re less inclined to take part in the social comparison that drives you to quickly lose satisfaction with what you have.

Area #3: Purpose

Lyubomirsky suggests that having a sense of purpose is key to feeling happy because it gives your life direction, creating opportunities for satisfaction and fulfillment. She suggests three strategies for honing your purpose:

  1. Pursue meaningful goals: Create clear action plans, regularly review and adjust your objectives, and seek mentorship for guidance and support.
  2. Engage deeply: Focus your attention during tasks, transform mundane activities into stimulating challenges, and strive for moments of complete immersion in whatever you’re doing.
  3. Embrace spirituality: Consider joining a religious community or dedicating daily time to prayer.

According to Lyubomirsky, these three strategies enhance long-term happiness by helping you to experience genuine satisfaction, overcome challenges, and feel connected. Let’s examine each of these benefits.

Benefit 1) Experience Genuine Satisfaction

Lyubomirsky explains that pursuing goals you care about provides direction, structure, and a sense of purpose to your daily activities. Additionally, achieving each milestone elevates your confidence and self-esteem, transforming each success into a source of joy and motivation.

Lyubomirsky adds that engaging deeply in tasks makes how you spend your time feel more meaningful—by helping you derive joy from the process, not just the result. 

Benefit 2) Overcome Challenges

According to Lyubomirsky, striving to achieve goals motivates you to constantly learn, adapt, and embrace new challenges that sharpen both your personal and professional skills—for example, fostering self-awareness and mastering time management. The more you develop, the easier you find it to achieve your goals and the more empowered you feel to navigate obstacles on your journey.

Benefit 3) Feel Connected 

Lyubomirsky argues that engaging in goal-oriented tasks often involves interacting with others, providing opportunities to collaborate and work toward a shared purpose.

Additionally, Lyubomirsky suggests that engaging in spiritual or religious activities not only connects you to like-minded individuals and supportive communities, but also strengthens your feelings of inner tranquility and connection to a higher power. 

Part 3: Personalize Your Path to Happiness

We’ve just covered a variety of strategies for cultivating positive thoughts and behaviors to enhance long-term happiness. While using these strategies might sound straightforward, Lyubomirsky highlights a common pitfall: Many people mistakenly believe that all positive thoughts and behaviors yield the same happy outcomes.

We’ll explain why personalizing your positive thoughts and behaviors increases your chances of enhancing your long-term happiness. We’ll also describe Lyubomirsky’s advice for how to personalize the happiness-boosting strategies. 

Why Personalization Matters

According to Lyubomirsky, for positive thoughts and behaviors to impact happiness, they must resonate with you personally. She explains that happiness is subjective—we all have unique values and temperaments that influence how we respond to experiences. In other words, a strategy that makes one person happy won’t necessarily elicit the same response in another. Therefore, the more happiness-boosting strategies feel personal to you, the more likely they are to work.

Additionally, you’re more likely to regularly practice strategies that resonate with you—which Lyubomirsky says is key to enhancing long-term happiness. Think of happiness as a muscle: Just as sporadic exercise won’t significantly strengthen your muscles, occasional engagement in happiness-boosting activities won’t impact your long-term happiness. On the other hand, much like regular workouts compound over time to increase strength and endurance, consistently practicing happiness-boosting strategies leads to upward spirals of happiness.

Lyubomirsky’s research reinforces her argument that personalized strategies foster greater commitment and benefits. In one study, researchers assigned participants a random happiness activity to pursue for two months. Participants who pursued activities that aligned with their preferences not only enjoyed the practice more but also continued it post-study and reaped greater happiness than those assigned mismatched activities.

How to Personalize Your Happiness-Boosting Strategies

Lyubomirsky suggests that you’re more likely to commit to and benefit from happiness-boosting strategies if you personalize them in four ways:

1) Self-reflect:  Lyubomirsky recommends pondering moments that genuinely bring you happiness and using tools that help you understand your strengths and values, such as the Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic. For example, if you find joy in helping others and have free time, consider volunteering for a cause you care about. 

2) Practice regularly: Lyubomirsky suggests considering times when you’re most receptive to practicing happiness-boosting strategies and introducing them into your routine one at a time to avoid being overwhelmed. For example, if you’re a morning person, begin practicing a single strategy after you wake up, or if you’re a night person, try adding a strategy to your nighttime routine. Wait until you’ve established it as a habit before adding another.

3) Introduce variety: Lyubomirsky says to ensure your practice doesn’t become monotonous and feel like a chore by varying the activities or rotating between strategies. Additionally, if your circumstances change, make sure your strategies evolve in tandem. For example, if your workload increases leaving you with less free time, integrate shorter, more focused strategies into your day.

4) Monitor your progress: Lyubomirsky recommends using happiness self-evaluation tools like the Subjective Happiness Scale or the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire to measure the impact of different strategies and inform your practice. For example, if you notice improvement after starting a specific strategy, consider dedicating more time to it or exploring similar activities.

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky (Overview)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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