Interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky
When did you decide you wanted to research happiness?
On my very first day of graduate school (at Stanford)! The truth is that my research on happiness had a serendipitous beginning. On that first day, back in 1989, I spent an entire afternoon taking a walk around the campus with my new advisor, Lee Ross. He is a world expert on conflict and negotiation (a field almost opposite to the well-being field!), but he happened to raise with me the question of happiness that day. What is the secret to happiness? Why are some people happier than others? So, we started conducting some studies together, mostly very descriptive studies, in which we interviewed people who’d been nominated by their peers as being ‘very happy’ or ‘very unhappy.’ We were naive at first about what we’d find, and so the interviews, as well as our later work, turned out to be very revealing.
That was 28 years ago, and those years have been challenging and thrilling. Since that first day, I’ve been investigating the question of why some people are happier than others and the question of how we can make people even happier. I often have the feeling of ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’ However, at the beginning, I was pretty insecure about the research and my abilities as a researcher. In part, this was because the topic of happiness was not considered very scientific back then. Now, there are scores of researchers and serious scientists investigating happiness at every level ‘ from the experimental social psychology laboratory to the neuroscience bench to the field.
What is the most difficult obstacle to your own happiness that you have encountered?
There are many obstacles to happiness — for me and for all of us – but we forge ahead! I’ll give just one example from my own life. A recurring theme in The How of Happiness is about the importance of redirecting attention and trying to appreciate what you have and see “the big picture.” However, this can be very challenging at times and one of the strategies that I personally use is to ask myself after a crisis or a really bad day or week, “Will it matter in a year?” Yet this is not always easy to follow.
My favorite anecdote is one day when I was telling my husband, Pete, about what a great strategy this is and how well it works. Just when I finished talking, my oldest daughter, who was then 7, walked in and her long beautiful hair was completely entangled with gum. I just lost it! I started yelling at her: “How could you do such a thing?!” etc. And Pete just started laughing. “What were you just telling me? Will this matter in a year?” “But it will matter in a year!” I cried. “I’m going to have to cut her hair off and it’s still going to be short a whole year later!”
Though that was clearly not an occasion in which I used the seeing the big picture (“Will it matter in a year?”) strategy effectively, I still try to practice it as often as I can. I have four children (from ages 4 to 18), and life is not easy. There are always challenges and tough times, and I try to remind myself of the big picture on an almost daily basis.
How can audiences gain from your keynote presentations?
Almost everyone around the world is interested in becoming happier or learning about happiness. What is happiness? What are the biggest misconceptions about happiness? Is it a good thing or does it just feel good? What are the benefits of being a happy person? And, most important, what can we do to become happier and to lead healthier, more flourishing, and more productive lives? How can we harness the power of gratitude, generosity, optimism, and savoring? If you are interested in these questions, come to my talks!
How much does humor factor into your keynotes and other speaking engagements?
I don’t do improv (!), but a lot of the psychological findings are actually very funny (and very relevant). So, yes, humor plays a part.
Have you been able to use your knowledge of happiness to help those close to you?
I try to separate my work and family/personal life, but what I have learned about happiness naturally spills over into my relationships. When my friends and family ask me what one piece of advice I would give about being happy, I tell them that this is a difficult question, but my advice about how to attain and sustain happiness would be to nurture their interpersonal relationships. Whether we’re talking about your parents, children, siblings, spouse, neighbors, colleagues, supervisors, or close friends, investing in those relationships – expressing gratitude, doing kindness, trying to be empathetic, and staying positive and supportive – will probably contribute to your happiness and health more than anything else. (But work is a close second!)