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

Notes

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).

References

Ar­gyle (1999). Causes and cor­re­lates of hap­piness. In Kah­ne­man, Diener, & Schwartz (Eds.), Well-be­ing: The foun­da­tions of he­do­nic psy­chol­ogy. New York: Sage.

Ar­gyle (2001). The Psy­chol­ogy of Hap­piness (2nd ed.). New York: Rout­ledge.

Aron, Nor­man, Aron, McKenna, & Hey­man (2000). Cou­ples shared par­ti­ci­pa­tion in novel and arous­ing ac­tivi­ties and ex­pe­rienced re­la­tion­ship qual­ity. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 78: 273-283.

Aron, Nor­man, Aron, & Le­wandowski (2003). Shared par­ti­ci­pa­tion in self- ex­pand­ing ac­tivi­ties: Pos­i­tive effects on ex­pe­rienced mar­i­tal qual­ity. In Nol­ler & Feeney (Eds.), Mar­i­tal in­ter­ac­tion (pp. 177-196). Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press.

Bar­rett, Web­ster, Wal­lis (1999). Ado­les­cent self-es­teem and cog­ni­tive skills train­ing: a school-based in­ter­ven­tion. Jour­nal of Child and Fam­ily Stud­ies 8(2): 217-227.

Bauer, McA­dams, & Pals (2008). Nar­ra­tive iden­tity and eu­daimonic well-be­ing. Jour­nal of Hap­piness Stud­ies, 9: 81-104.

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