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  • Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change

    Sonja LyubomirskyUniversity of California, Riverside

    Kennon M. SheldonUniversity of MissouriColumbia

    David SchkadeUniversity of California, San Diego

    The pursuit of happiness is an important goal for many people. However, surprisinglylittle scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increasedand then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts ofgenetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of opti-mism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing onthe past well-being literature, the authors propose that a persons chronic happinesslevel is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness,happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and prac-tices. The authors then consider adaptation and dynamic processes to show why theactivity category offers the best opportunities for sustainably increasing happiness.Finally, existing research is discussed in support of the model, including 2 preliminaryhappiness-increasing interventions.

    The pursuit of happiness holds an honoredposition in American society, beginning withthe Declaration of Independence, where it ispromised as a cherished right for all citizens.Today, the enduring U.S. obsession with how tobe happy can be observed in the row upon rowof popular psychology and self-help books inany major bookstore and in the millions ofcopies of these books that are sold. Indeed,many social contexts in the United States havethe production of happiness and positive feel-ings as their primary purpose, and questions

    such as Are you happy? and Are you havingfun? fit nearly every occasion (Markus &Kitayama, 1994). Not surprisingly, the majorityof U.S. residents rate personal happiness as veryimportant (Diener, Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995;Triandis, Bontempo, Leung, & Hui, 1990) andreport thinking about happiness at least onceevery day (Freedman, 1978). Furthermore, thepursuit of happiness is no longer just a NorthAmerican obsession, but instead it is becomingever more global as people seek to fulfill thepromises of capitalism and political freedom(Diener et al., 1995; Freedman, 1978; Triandiset al., 1990). It seems that nearly all peoplebelieve, or would like to believe, that they canmove in an upward spiral (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001) toward ever greater personalwell-being.

    Is the pursuit of happiness merely a bourgeoisconcern, a symptom of Western comfort andself-centeredness, a factor that has no real im-pact on psychological adjustment and adapta-tion? The empirical evidence suggests that thisis not the case. Indeed, a number of researchersand thinkers have argued that the ability to behappy and contented with life is a central crite-rion of adaptation and positive mental health(e.g., Diener, 1984; Jahoda, 1958; Taylor &Brown, 1988). Bolstering this notion, Ly-ubomirsky and her colleagues recently com-

    Sonja Lyubomirsky, Department of Psychology, Univer-sity of California, Riverside; Kennon M. Sheldon, Depart-ment of Psychology, University of MissouriColumbia;David Schkade, Rady School of Management, University ofCalifornia, San Diego.

    This work was supported in part by grants from thePositive Psychology Network. We are grateful to LindaHouser-Marko, Kathleen Jamir, and Chris Tkach for con-ducting library research and to Shelley Taylor, David Sher-man, and the other members of Psychology 421 for valuablecomments on a draft.

    Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-dressed to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Department of Psychology,University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, or KennonM. Sheldon, Department of Psychological Sciences, 112McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO65211. E-mail: sonja@citrus.ucr.edu or sheldonk@missouri.edu

    Review of General Psychology Copyright 2005 by the Educational Publishing Foundation2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 111131 1089-2680/05/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111


  • piled evidence showing that happiness has nu-merous positive byproducts that appear to ben-efit individuals, families, and communities(Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2004; see alsoFredrickson, 2001). Furthermore, Lyubomirskyet al.s analysis revealed that happy people gaintangible benefits in many different life domainsfrom their positive state of mind, includinglarger social rewards (higher odds of marriageand lower odds of divorce, more friends, stron-ger social support, and richer social interac-tions; e.g., Harker & Keltner, 2001; Marks &Fleming, 1999; Okun, Stock, Haring, & Witter,1984), superior work outcomes (greater creativ-ity, increased productivity, higher quality ofwork, and higher income; e.g., Estrada, Isen, &Young, 1994; Staw, Sutton, & Pelled, 1995),and more activity, energy, and flow (e.g., Csik-szentmihalyi & Wong, 1991).

    Further supporting the argument that subjec-tive happiness may be integral to mental andphysical health, happy people are more likely toevidence greater self-control and self-regulatoryand coping abilities (e.g., Aspinwall, 1998;Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Keltner & Bon-anno, 1997), to have a bolstered immune system(e.g., Dillon, Minchoff, & Baker, 1985; Stone etal., 1994), and even to live a longer life (e.g.,Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Ostir,Markides, Black, & Goodwin, 2000). Also,happy people are not just self-centered or self-ish; the literature suggests that happy individu-als instead tend to be relatively more coopera-tive, prosocial, charitable, and other-centered(e.g., Isen, 1970; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Wil-liams & Shiaw, 1999).

    In summary, happy individuals appear morelikely to be flourishing people, both inwardlyand outwardly. Thus, we argue that enhancingpeoples happiness levels may indeed be a wor-thy scientific goal, especially after their basicphysical and security needs are met. Unfortu-nately, however, relatively little scientific sup-port exists for the idea that peoples happinesslevels can change for the better. For example,the happiness-boosting techniques proposed inthe self-help literature generally have limitedgrounding in scientific theory and even lessempirical confirmation of their effectiveness(Norcross et al., 2000). Consider a representa-tive best seller, You Can Be Happy No MatterWhat: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Per-spective, by Carlson (1997). Do the five princi-

    ples work? Do some work better than others?Do the principles work better for some peoplethan for others? Are any positive effects of theprinciples due, ultimately, to placebo effects? Ifthe book actually helps people get happier,does the happiness boost last? Although it ispossible that some of the advice given in thisand other similar books could well be appropri-ate and effective, the authors provide almost noempirical research in support of their claims.

    One receives little more guidance from con-temporary academic psychology. Of course, re-search psychologists have identified many pre-dictors of peoples happiness or subjective well-being. For example, well-being has been shownto be associated with a wide variety of factors,including demographic status (e.g., Argyle,1999; Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; My-ers, 2000), personality traits and attitudes (e.g.,Diener & Lucas, 1999), and goal characteristics(e.g., McGregor & Little, 1998). However, alimitation of previous research is that the vastmajority of studies have been cross sectionaland have reported between-subjects effectsrather than investigating well-being longitudi-nally and examining within-subject effects. Inaddition, very few happiness intervention stud-ies have been conducted. Thus, researchers stillknow surprisingly little about how to changewell-being, that is, about the possibility of be-coming happier. Doubtless, part of the reasonfor this neglect is the difficulty of conductinglongitudinal and intervention studies. The prob-lem is further compounded by the tendency ofapplied mental health researchers to focus onpathology rather than on positive mental health(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and bythe thorny issues raised when theorists speculateon how people should live their lives to max-imize their potential for happiness (Schwartz,2000). However, we believe the principal rea-son for the neglect of this question is the con-siderable scientific pessimism over whether it iseven possible to effect sustainable increases inhappiness.

    Historical Sources of Pessimism

    Three considerations serve to illustrate thedepth of this pessimism. First is the idea of agenetically determined set point (or set range)for happiness. Lykken and Tellegen (1996)have provided evidence, based on twin studies


  • and adoption studies, that the heritability ofwell-being may be as high as 80% (although amore widely accepted figure is 50%; Braungart,Plomin, DeFries, & Fulker, 1992; Tellegen etal., 1988; cf. Diener et al., 1999). Whatever theexact coefficient, its large magnitude suggeststhat for each person there is indeed a chronic orcharacteristic level of happiness. Consistentwith this idea, Headey and Wearing (1989)found, in a four-wave panel study, that partici-pants tended to keep returning to their ownbaselines over time (see also Suh, Diener, &Fujita, 1996). Thus, although there may be sub-stantial variation around this baseline level inthe short term, in the long term people perhapscannot help but return to their set point, or to themiddle of their set range: What goes up mustcome down (a more detailed description of thehappiness set point is provided later).

    A second and closely related source of pes-simism comes from the literature on personalitytraits. Traits a