How to Be Happy

Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life

One day a coworker said to me, “Luke! You’re, like, the happiest person I know! How come you’re so happy all the time?”

It was probably a rhetorical question, but I had a very long answer to give. See, I was unhappy for most of my life,1 and even considered suicide a few times. Then I spent two years studying the science of happiness. Now, happiness is my natural state. I can’t remember the last time I felt unhappy for longer than 20 minutes.

That kind of change won’t happen for everyone, or even most people (beware of other-optimizing), but it’s worth a shot!

We all want to be happy, and happiness is useful for other things, too.2 For example, happiness improves physical health,3 improves creativity,4 and even enables you to make better decisions.5 (It’s harder to be rational when you’re unhappy.6) So, as part of a series on how to win at life with science and rationality, let’s review the science of happiness.

The correlates of happiness

Earlier, I noted that there is an abundance of research on factors that correlate with subjective well-being (individuals’ own assessments of their happiness and life satisfaction).

Factors that don’t correlate much with happiness include: age,7 gender,8 parenthood,9 intelligence,10 physical attractiveness,11 and money12 (as long as you’re above the poverty line). Factors that correlate moderately with happiness include: health,13 social activity,14 and religiosity.15 Factors that correlate strongly with happiness include: genetics,16 love and relationship satisfaction,17 and work satisfaction.18

But correlation is not enough. We want to know what causes happiness. And that is a trickier thing to measure. But we do know a few things.

Happiness, personality, and skills

Genes account for about 50% of the variance in happiness.19 Even lottery winners and newly-made quadriplegics do not see as much of a change in happiness as you would expect.20 Presumably, genes shape your happiness by shaping your personality, which is known to be quite heritable.21

So which personality traits tend to correlate most with happiness? Extroversion is among the best predictors of happiness,22 as are conscientiousness, agreeableness, self-esteem, and optimism.23

What if you don’t have those traits? The first thing to say is that you might be capable of them without knowing it. Introversion, for example, can be exacerbated by a lack of social skills. If you decide to learn and practice social skills, you might find that you are more extroverted than you thought! (That’s what happened to me.) The same goes for conscientiousness, agreeableness, self-esteem, and optimism—these are only partly linked to personality. They are to some extent learnable skills, and learning these skills (or even “acting as if”) can increase happiness.24

The second thing to say is that lacking some of these traits does not, of course, doom you to unhappiness.

Happiness is subjective and relative

Happiness is not determined by objective factors, but by how you feel about them.25

Happiness is also relative26: you’ll probably be happier making $25,000/​yr in Costa Rica (where your neighbors are making $13,000/​yr) than you will be making $80,000/​yr in Beverly Hills (where your neighbors are making $130,000/​yr).

Happiness is relative in another sense, too: it is relative to your expectations.27 We are quite poor at predicting the strength of our emotional reactions to future events. We overestimate the misery we will experience after a romantic breakup, failure to get a promotion, or even contracting an illness. We also overestimate the pleasure we will get from buying a nice car, getting a promotion, or moving to a lovely coastal city. So: lower your expectations about the pleasure you’ll get from such expenditures.

Flow and mindfulness

You may have heard of the famous studies28 showing that people are happiest when they are in a state of “flow.” Flow is the state you’re in when you are fully engaged in a task that is interesting, challenging, and intrinsically rewarding to you. This is the experience of “losing yourself in the moment” or, as sports players say, “being in the zone.”

Finding flow has largely to do with performing tasks that match your skill level. When a task is far beyond your skill level, you will feel defeated. When a task is too easy, you’ll be bored. Only when a task is challenging but achievable will you feel good about doing it. I’m reminded of the state troopers in Super Troopers, who devised strange games and challenges to make their boring jobs passable. Myrtle Young made her boring job at a potato chip factory more interesting and challenging by looking for potato chips that resembled celebrities, and pulling them off the conveyor belts for her collection.

If you’re struggling with negative thoughts, achieving flow is probably the best medicine. Contrary to popular wisdom, forced positive thinking often makes things worse.29 Trying to not think about Upsetting Thought X has the same effect as trying to not think about pink elephants: you can’t help but think about pink elephants.

While being “lost in the moment” may provide some of your happiest moments, research has also shown that when you’re not in flow, taking a step outside the moment and practicing “mindfulness”—that is, paying attention to your situation, your actions, and your feelings—can reduce chronic pain and depression30, reduce stress and anxiety31, and produce a wide range of other positive effects.32

How to be happier

Happiness, then, is an enormously complex thing. Worse, we must remember the difference between experienced happiness and remembered happiness. I can only scratch the surface of happiness research in this tiny post. In short, there is no simple fix for unhappiness; no straight path to bliss.

Moreover, happiness will be achieved differently for different people. A person suffering from depression due to chemical imbalance may get more help from a pill than from learning better social skills. A healthy, extroverted, agreeable, conscientious woman can still be unhappy if she is trapped in a bad marriage. Some people were raised by parents whose parenting style did not encourage the development of healthy self-esteem,33 and they will need to devote significant energy to overcome this deficit. For some, the road to happiness is long. For others, it is short.

Below, I review a variety of methods for becoming happier. Some of them I discussed above; many, I did not.

These methods are ranked roughly in descending order of importance and effect, based on my own reading of the literature. You will need to think about who you are, what makes you happy, what makes you unhappy, and what you can achieve in order to determine which of the below methods should be attempted first. Also, engaging any of these methods may require that you first gain some mastery over procrastination.

Here, then, are some methods for becoming happier34:

  1. If you suffer from serious illness, depression, anxiety, paranoia, schizophrenia, or other serious problems, seek professional help first. Here’s how.

  2. Even if you don’t need professional help, you may benefit from some self-exploration and initial guidance from a reductionistic, naturalistic counselor like Tom Clark.

  3. Develop the skills and habits associated with extroversion. First, get some decent clothes and learn how to wear them properly. If you’re a guy, read these books. If you’re a girl, ask your girlfriends or try these books. Next, learn basic social skills, including body language. If you’re really introverted, practice on Chatroulette or Omegle first. Next, spend more time with other people, making small talk. Go to meetups and CouchSurfing group activities. Practice your skills until they become more natural, and you find yourself enjoying being in the company of others. Learn how to be funny and practice that, too.

  4. Improve your self-esteem and optimism. This is tricky. First, too much self-esteem can lead to harmful narcissism.35 Second, it’s not clear that a rationalist can endorse several standard methods for improving one’s self esteem (self-serving bias, basking in reflected glory, self-handicapping)36 because they toy with self-deception and anti-epistemology. But there are a few safe ways to increase your self-esteem and optimism. Make use of success spirals, vicarious victory, and mental contrasting, as described here.

  5. Improve your agreeableness. In simpler terms, this basically means: increase your empathy. Unfortunately, little is currently known (scientifically) about how to increase one’s empathy.37 The usual advice about trying to see things from another’s perspective, and thinking more about people less fortunate than oneself, will have to do for now. The organization Roots of Empathy may have some good advice, too.

  6. Improve your conscientiousness. Conscientiousness involves a variety of tendencies: useful organization, strong work ethic, reliability, planning ahead, etc. Each of these individual skills can be learned. The techniques for overcoming procrastination are useful, here. Some people report that books like Getting Things Done have helped them become more organized and reliable.

  7. Develop the habit of gratitude. Savor the good moments throughout each day.38 Spend time thinking about happy memories.39 And at the end of each day, write down 5 things you are grateful for: the roof over your head, your good fortune at being born in a wealthy country, the existence of Less Wrong, the taste of chocolate, the feel of orgasm… whatever. It sounds childish, but it works.40

  8. Find your purpose and live it. One benefit of religion may be that it gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. Without a magical deity to give you purpose, though, you’ll have to find out for yourself what drives you. It may take a while to find it though, and you may have to dip your hands and mind into many fields. But once you find a path that strongly motivates you and fulfills you, take it. (Of course, you might not find one purpose but many.) Having a strong sense of meaning and purpose has a wide range of positive effects.41 The ‘find a purpose’ recommendation also offers an illustration of how methods may differ in importance for people. ‘Find a purpose’ is not always emphasized in happiness literature, but for my own brain chemistry I suspect that finding motivating purposes has made more difference in my life than anything else on this list.

  9. Find a more fulfilling job. Few people do what they love for a living. Getting to that point can be difficult and complicated. You may find that doing 10 other things on this list first is needed for you to have a good chance at getting a more fulfilling job. To figure out which career might be full of tasks that you love to do, a RIASEC personality test might help. In the USA, O*NET can help you find jobs that are in-demand and fit your personality.

  10. Improve your relationship with your romantic partner, or find a different one. As with finding a more fulfilling job, this one is complicated, but can have major impact. If you know your relationship isn’t going anywhere, you may want to drop it so you can spend more time developing yourself, which will improve future relationships. If you’re pretty serious about your partner, there are many things you can do to improve the relationship. Despite being touted widely, “active listening” doesn’t predict relationship success.42 Tested advice for improving the chances of relationship success and satisfaction include: (1) do novel and exciting things with your partner often43, (2) say positive things to and about your partner at least 5 times more often than you say negative things44, (3) spend each week writing about why your relationship is better than some others you know about45, (4) qualify every criticism of your partner with a review of one or two of their positive qualities46, and (5) stare into each other’s eyes more often.47

  11. Go outside and move your body. This will improve your attention and well-being.48

  12. Spend more time in flow. Drop impossible tasks in favor of tasks that are at the outer limits of your skillset. Make easy and boring tasks more engaging by turning them into games or adding challenges for yourself.

  13. Practice mindfulness regularly. When not in flow, step outside yourself and pay attention to how you are behaving, how your emotions are functioning, and how your current actions work toward your goals. Meditation may help.

  14. Avoid consumerism. The things you own do come to own you, in a sense. Consumerism leads to unhappiness.49 Unfortunately, you’ve probably been programmed from birth to see through the lens of consumerism. One way to start deprogramming is by watching this documentary about the deliberate invention of consumerism by Edward Bernays. After that, you may want to sell or give away many of your possessions and, more importantly, drastically change your purchasing patterns.

Note that seeking happiness as an end might be counterproductive. Many people report that constantly checking to see if they are happy actually decreases their happiness—a report that fits with the research on “flow.” It may be better to seek some of the above goals as ends, and happiness will be a side-effect.

Remember: Happiness will not come from reading articles on the internet. Happiness will come when you do the things research recommends.

Good luck!

Next post: The Good News of Situationist Psychology

Previous post: How to Beat Procrastination


1 From a young age through my teenage years, I was known as the pessimist in my family. Of course, I would retort I was merely a realist. Making happiness work within me made me an optimist. These days I’m pessimistic about many things: For example I think there’s about a 5050 chance the human species will survive this century. But it’s a kind of rationalistic, emotionally detached pessimism. It doesn’t affect my mood.

2 Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener (2005).

3 Steptoe et al. (2005).

4 Isen et al. (1987); Isen (2004); Fredrickson (1998).

5 Isen (2002); Morris (1999).

6 Beck (2008); Ellis (2001).

7 Age and happiness are unrelated (Lykken 1999), age accounting for less than 1% of the variation in people’s happiness (Inglehart 1990; Myers & Diener 1997).

8 Despite being treated for depressive disorders twice as often as men (Nolen-Hoeksema 2002), women report just as high levels of well-being as men do (Myers 1992).

9 Apparently, the joys and stresses of parenthood balance each other out, as people with and without children are equally happy (Argyle 2001).

10 Both IQ and educational attainment appear to be unrelated to happiness (Diener et al. 2009; Ross & Van Willigen 1997).

11 Good-looking people enjoy huge advantages, but do not report greater happiness than others (Diener et al. 1995).

12 The correlation between income and happiness is surprisingly weak (Diener & Seligman 2004; Diener et al. 1993; Johnson & Krueger 2006). One problem may be that higher income contributes to greater materialism, which impedes happiness (Frey & Stutzer 2002; Kasser et al. 2004; Solberg et al. 2002; Kasser 2002; Van Boven 2005; Nickerson et al. 2003; Kahneman et al. 2006).

13 Those with disabling health conditions are happier than you might think (Myers 1992; Riis et al. 2005; Argyle 1999).

14 Those who are satisfied with their social life are moderately more happy than others (Diener & Seligman 2004; Myers 1999; Diener & Seligman 2002).

15 Religiosity correlates with happiness (Abdel-Kahlek 2005; Myers 2008), though it may be religious attendance and not religious belief that matters (Chida et al. 2009).

16 Past happiness is the best predictor of future happiness (Lucas & Diener 2008). Happiness is surprisingly unmoved by external factors (Lykken & Tellegen 1996), because genes accounts for about 50% of the variance in happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Stubbe et al. 2005).

17 Married people are happier than those who are single or divorced (Myers & Diener 1995; Diener et al. 2000), and marital satisfaction predicts happiness (Proulx et al. 2007).

18 Unemployment makes people very unhappy (Argyle 2001), and job satisfaction is strongly correlated with happiness (Judge & Klinger 2008; Warr 1999).

19 Lyubomirsky et al. (2005); Stubbe et al. (2005).

20 Brickman et al. (1978).

21 Weiss et al. (2008).

22 Lucas & Diener (2008); Fleeson et al. (2002).

23 Lucas (2008) and Lyubomirsky et al. (2006).

24 On the learnability of extroversion, see Fleeson et al. (2002); Bouchard & Loehlin (2001); McNeil & Fleeson (2006). On the learnability of agreeableness, see Graziano & Tobin (2009). On the learnability of conscientiousness, see Roberts et al. (2009). On the learnability of self-esteem, see Barrett et al. (1999); Borras et al. (2009). On the learnability of optimism, see Lindsley et al. (1995); Hans (2000); Feldman & Matjasko (2005). On the learnability of character traits in general, see Peterson & Seligman (2004).

25 Schwarz & Strack (1999).

26 Argyle (1999); Hagerty (2000).

27 Gilbert (2006), Hsee & Hastie (2005), Wilson & Gilbert (2005).

28 Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1998); Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi & Damon (2002); Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2009).

29 Wegner (1989).

30 Kabat-Zinn (1982).

31 Shapiro et al. (1998); Chang et al. (2004).

32 Grossman et al. (2004).

33 Felson (1989); Harter (1998); Furnham & Cheng (2000); Wissink et al. (2006).

34 There are several disputed and uncertain methods I did not mention. One example is “expressive writing.” Compare Lepore & Smyth (2002) and Spera et al. (1994) to Seery et al. (2008). Moreover, talking with a others about bad experiences may help, but maybe not: see Zech & Rimé (2005). Another disputed method is that of improving mood by thinking quicker and more varied thoughts: see Pronin & Jacobs (2008). I’m waiting for more research to come in on that one. The results of “affectionate writing” are mixed: see Floyd et al. (2009). The effects of household plants are also mixed: see Bringslimark et al. (2009). There remains debate on whether forced smiles and laughter improve happiness. Finally, see the review of literature in Helliwell (2011).

35 Crocker & Park (2004); Bushman & Baumeister (1998); Bushman & Baumeister (2002).

36 Self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute success to internal causes (oneself), but attribute failure to external causes. Basking in reflected glory is an attempt to enhance one’s image by announcing and displaying association with a well-perceived group or individual. Self-handicapping is a way of saving face by sabotaging one’s performance in order to provide an excuse for the failure.

37 See, for example: Stepien & Baernstein (2006); de Vignemont & Singer (2006); Heln & Singer (2008).

38 Bryant & Veroff (2007).

39 Burton & King (2004).

40 Emmons & McCullough (2003); Lyubomirsky et al. (2005); Peterson (2006).

41 Park & Folkman (1997); Bauer et al. (2008); Lee et al. (2006); Reker et al. (1987); Ulmer et al. (1991); Langer & Rodin (1976).

42 Gottman et al. (1998); Hahlweg et al. (1984); Jacobson et al. (1987).

43 Aron et al. (2000); Aron et al. (2003).

44 Gottman (1984).

45 Buunk et al. (2001).

46 Murray & Holmes (1999).

47 Aron et al. (2000). As for how to find, attract, and keep a great romantic partner in the first place, well: that will have to wait for another article. And of course, perhaps you’re not looking for a long term romantic relationship at all. That’s another article, too.

48 Berto (2005); Hartig et al. (2003); Kaplan (1993, 2001); Price (2008); Berman et al. (2008); Tennessen & Cimprich (1995).

49 Frey & Stutzer (2002); Kasser et al. (2004); Solberg et al. (2002); Kasser (2002); Van Boven (2005); Nickerson et al. (2003); Kahneman et al. (2006).


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