SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY

Professor, University of California, Riverside

Ph.D. Stanford University, 1994

(951) 827-5041 (msg only)

sonja.lyubomirsky[at]ucr.edu

Google Scholar Page       Lyubomirsky CV

The majority of my research career has been devoted to studying human happiness. Why is the scientific study of happiness important? In short, because most people believe that happiness is meaningful, desirable, and an important, worthy goal, because happiness is one of the most salient and significant dimensions of human experience and emotional life, because happiness yields numerous rewards for the individual, and because it makes for a better, healthier, stronger society. Along these lines, my current research addresses three critical questions: 1) What makes people happy?; 2) Is happiness a good thing?; and 3) How and why can people learn to lead happier and more flourishing lives?

Why Are Some People Happier Than Others?

I have always been struck by the capacity of some individuals to be remarkably happy, even in the face of stress, trauma, or adversity. Thus, my earlier research efforts had been focused on trying to understand why some people are happier than others (for a review and theoretical framework, see Lyubomirsky, 2001). To this end, my approach had been to explore the cognitive and motivational processes that distinguish individuals who show exceptionally high and low levels of happiness. These processes include social comparison (how people compare themselves to peers), dissonance reduction (how people justify both trivial and important choices in their lives), self-evaluation (how people judge themselves), and person perception (how people think about others). All of these processes, it turns out, have hedonic implications – that is, positive or negative consequences for happiness and self-regard – and thus are relevant to elucidating individual differences in enduring well-being. My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and more adaptive ways. For a recent example, we found that happy individuals are relatively more likely than their less happy peers to “endow” positive memories (i.e., store them in their emotional “bank accounts”) but to “contrast” negative memories (i.e., “life is so much better now”) (Liberman, Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Ross, 2011).

On-going studies in my laboratory are exploring additional cognitive and motivational processes that support the differing worlds of enduring happiness versus chronic unhappiness. For example, several investigations have revealed that unhappy individuals are more likely than happy ones to dwell on negative or ambiguous events (Lyubomirsky, Boehm, Kasri, & Zehm, 2011). Such “dwelling” or rumination may drain cognitive resources and thus bring to bear a variety of negative consequences, which could further reinforce unhappiness. These findings demonstrate some of the maladaptive by-products of self-reflection, suggesting that not only is the “unexamined life” worth living, but it is potentially full of happiness and joy.

To cast our work on happiness in a broader framework, we have also been exploring the meaning, expression, and pursuit of happiness across cultures, subcultures, and age groups (e.g., Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Sheldon, 2011). For example, despite media reports, we have found that parents actually experience more happiness and meaning than do non-parents–both when evaluating their lives as a whole, when going about their days, and when caring for their children (versus doing other activities; Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn, & Lyubomirsky, 2013). Of course, parents’ happiness is impacted by myriad factors, including their age and SES and their children’s ages and temperaments (Nelson, Kushlev,  & Lyubomirsky, in press). Furthermore, we are currently carrying out happiness-increasing interventions among Japanese engineers, Korean undergraduates, Spanish and German professionals, Canadian elementary school students, and British teens.

What Are the Benefits of Happiness?
Is happiness a good thing? Or, does it just simply feel good? A review of all the available literature has revealed that happiness does indeed have numerous positive byproducts, which appear to benefit not only individuals, but families, communities, and the society at large (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). The benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes (e.g., greater productivity and higher quality of work), larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life. The literature, my colleagues and I have found, also suggests that happy individuals are more creative, helpful, charitable, and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities. On-going and future experimental and longitudinal studies that attempt to increase the long-term happiness of students and working adults are giving us the opportunity to assess whether increases in durable happiness predict changes in other positive outcomes, such as altruistic behavior, creativity, work performance, physical health, and social relationships. We are investigating whether both happiness and generosity propagate across social networks (funded by the Notre Dame Science of Generosity Initiative), and whether happiness is associated with more physical movement and greater social interactions (funded by Hitachi’s Central Research Laboratory). For example, a recent study found that 9- to 11-year old kids who practiced acts of kindness not only got happier but became more popular with their peers (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl, & Lyubomirsky, 2013). We are also currently using new technologies, including ambulatory, sociometric, and smartphone methodologies, to assess happiness and the effects of positive activities (e.g., Parks, Della Porta, Pierce, Zilca, & Lyubomirsky, 2012).

Finally, a new line of research, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, focuses on the strength of humility — that is, how to measure it; what are its antecedents, causes, and consequences for individuals and organizations; and, perhaps most important, how people can develop it (Chancellor & Lyubomirsky, 2013).

The Architecture of Sustainable Happiness
A vibrant and continuing program of research is asking the question, “How can happiness be reliably increased?” (for reviews, see Layous & Lyubomirsky, in press; Lyubomirsky, 2008; Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). Despite pessimism from the current literature that the pursuit of happiness may be largely futile, my colleagues and I believe that durable increases in happiness are indeed possible and within the average person’s reach. Thus, following my construal theory of happiness, I am exploring how the thoughts and behaviors that characterize naturally happy people (i.e., “happy habits”) can be nurtured, acquired, or directly taught. To this end, my students’ and my current research is testing predictions from our new positive activity model (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013) —specifically, investigating the mechanisms underlying the efficacy of simple intentional effortful activities (which we call “positive activities”) to boost well-being.

We are presently conducting multiple experimental intervention studies in which participants’ cognitive and behavioral strategies are systematically retrained. For example, intervention studies with students, kids, community members, workers, depressed individuals, and hospital patients are testing the efficacy of six cognitive and behavioral volitional strategies: 1) regularly setting aside time to recall moments of gratitude (i.e., keeping a journal in which one “counts one’s blessings” or writing gratitude letters), 2) engaging in self-regulatory and positive thinking about oneself (i.e., reflecting, writing, and talking about one’s happiest and unhappiest life events or one’s goals for the future), 3) practicing altruism and kindness (i.e., routinely committing acts of kindness or trying to make a loved one happy), 4) pursuing significant, intrinsic life goals (e.g., listing and taking action on “baby steps” towards goals), 5) affirming one’s most important values, and 6) savoring positive experiences (e.g., using one’s five senses to relish daily moments or living this month like it’s one’s last in a particular location). Most important, we are testing our positive activity model by exploring whether the benefits of such activities differ across cultures (see above), and whether their success is moderated by such factors as person-activity “fit,” motivation, effort, social support, variety, dosage, intrinsic motivation, and expectations (e.g., Boehm et al., 2011; Lyubomirsky, Dickerhoof, Boehm, & Sheldon, 2011; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005; Lyubomirsky, Sousa, & Dickerhoof, 2006; Sheldon et al., 2010; Sheldon, Boehm, & Lyubomirsky, 2012; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2009; Sin, Della Porta, & Lyubomirsky, 2011). We are also examining the “why” of happiness-boosting interventions by testing the mediating role of positive events, positive thoughts, positive emotions, and need satisfaction. Finally, we are investigating genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in responses to happiness-increasing interventions, and considering how such interventions might protect people from mental health conditions (Layous, Chancellor, & Lyubomirsky, in press).

Thwarting Hedonic Adaptation
Finally, a line of research focuses on hedonic adaptation to positive experience as a critical barrier to raising happiness (Bao & Lyubomirsky, 2013; Lyubomirsky, 2011; Sheldon, Boehm, & Lyubomirsky, 2012; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012). After all, if people become accustomed to (and take for granted) anything positive that happens to them, then how can they ever become happier? A new model suggests that adaptation to positive experience proceeds via two paths: 1) through diminished positive emotions and 2) through increased aspirations. The key to achieving increased and lasting well-being thereby lies in effortful, intentional activities that slow down or preclude the positive adaptation process. Current studies are testing the hypothesis that such activities share several properties that potentially help them to effectively forestall adaptation: they are dynamic, episodic, novel, and attention-enticing. We are presently applying our model to understand what produces materialism and consumerism, and how to design interventions that significantly depress people’s aspirations and bolster their humility, thereby allowing them to step off the hedonic treadmill and become more thrifty (e.g., Chancellor & Lyubomirsky, 2011, 2013).

Selected Publications (click here for complete list)

  • Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 400-424.