September 24th, 2008

Sustainable Happiness: How to Become Happier and Stay that Way

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We humans adapt quickly to new circumstances. Take the lottery for example- do you think you would become permanently happier if you won it today? Studies have found that recent lottery winners are in fact temporarily happier, but soon after, they adjust and are no happier than others. If we are constantly adapting to positive change in our lives, then how can we sustain an increased level of happiness over the long-term? To answer this question, we must first understand what determines our happiness.

There are three major determinants of happiness

1)       Your genetic baseline / range of potential happiness

2)       Your current circumstances (e.g. health, income, region where you live)

3)       Your current intentional activities (e.g. exercising regularly, writing a book, attending college)

Pessimists might read this list and argue that you can never raise your genetic baseline level of happiness. They might say that even with circumstance or activity changes, you will always revert to a genetically-determined level of happiness. This is a fair argument, especially considering the lottery example, but one study completed by Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky has come to very a different conclusion.

You can sustain happiness above your genetic baseline level

According to the study, activity changes lead to sustainable increased levels of happiness, above your genetic baseline level. Circumstantial changes, by contrast, do not lead to sustainable increased levels of happiness. What does this mean? Winning the lottery or securing a raise (circumstantial changes) will increase your happiness temporarily. Starting to exercise or initiating a new goal (activity changes), will increase your happiness permanently.

This means that as long as you continue introducing intentional positive activity changes into your life, you can sustain higher levels of happiness. To use this knowledge effectively, you must be aware that activity-based changes are those that involve continual effort and engagement in some intentional process. Circumstance-based changes are one-time changes that tend to occur independently of effort and engagement.

Three habits you can start today to become happier and sustain it

1)       Stop falsely believing that changes in your current circumstances will lead to sustained increased happiness

2)       Start introducing positive activity changes into your life

3)       Practice virtues of gratitude, thankfulness, and thoughtful self-reflection

Creative Commons License photo credit: LarryLowrey

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5 Responses to “Sustainable Happiness: How to Become Happier and Stay that Way”

Poojan Wagh

September 26th, 2008 - 10:04 am

I highly recommend the book “Authentic Happiness” my Martin Seligman, which details these points, and also explains the best method I’ve seen to be more optimistic: the ABCDE model. It really works!

Derek Ralston

September 26th, 2008 - 1:44 pm

@Poojan- I’ve read his book “Learned Optimism” and really enjoyed it, will have to check out “Authentic Happiness”. Thanks (=


September 28th, 2008 - 5:28 pm

i like this post b/c its highly informative yet short and to the point


October 27th, 2008 - 9:02 pm

How awesome! I didn’t know that about activity based changes. I’ve personally sustained happiness above my genetic baseline level. I always learn new things, take up new hobbies, etc. Now I know that’s part of the puzzle to good mental health.


January 8th, 2011 - 2:45 pm

Sustaining happiness is such an important focus. Often people find happiness but it does not last long. Practicing thankfulness, as listed here, is a very big concept.

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