The 40% Solution to Happiness

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  • August 14, 2017

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“It is a truism that how you think — about yourself, your world, and other people — is more important to your happiness than the objective circumstances of your life.” —Sonja Lyubomirsky

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: If you are an American, there might not be words more pervasive and defining to the foundation of our country. The simple fact is that almost everyone is somehow in pursuit of happiness. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, especially if someone is living in a place without the rule of law or in an impoverished state. But for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to make the assumption that everyone reading this is pursuing happiness in some form or fashion — isn’t that what life is all about? The conundrum and the mystery we all face is how to get there.

For most of my life, the answer was fairly straightforward: Achieve lots of things, get into the best college possible, get a great job, marry a great wife, have a family, buy a nice house and more. I believed all of these achievements, external in nature, would somehow bring me happiness.

However, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness, the research says that the amount of our happiness determined by life circumstances makes up just a small fraction of our overall happiness. So although most people chase that percentage, what about the larger portion that most determines our happiness? That’s what her book, and this blog post, set out to explain.

About the Author

As a research psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California for the past 20 years or more, Lyubomirsky has tested various ways we can increase our level of happiness. She plays a key role in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, which at its core is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

On this blog, we’ve covered several topics related to this field of study including grit, vulnerability, peak and flow performance, and growth mindset. However, I still think this book is a must-read because it sums up these various elements beautifully while laying out 12 exercises to increase happiness.

Why Be Happy? And the 40% Solution

Part 1 of The How of Happiness addresses the questions “Is it possible to become happier?” and “Why does it matter?” Lyubomirsky explains why taking action to be happier is not a silly goal, but notes that construction of happiness is a better description of the process than pursuit.

Through studies with identical twins separated at birth, scientists have discovered that about half of our happiness is determined by our genetics and that we have what they call a “happiness set point” — a level of happiness we tend to gravitate toward. This means that 50 percent is fixed, and we can’t do anything about it.

Lyubomirsky states that, “In a nutshell, the fountain of happiness can be found in how you behave, what you think, and what goals you set every day of your life. ‘There is no happiness without action.’ If feelings of passivity and futility overcome you whenever you face up to your happiness set point or to your circumstances, you must know that a genuine and abiding happiness is indeed within your reach, lying within the 40 percent of the happiness pie chart that’s yours to guide.”

Lyubomirsky further states that only about 10 percent is determined by the things we tend to pursue in the name of happiness: life circumstances such as wealth, possessions, occupation, living conditions, family relationships and church membership.

This leads us to what makes up the 40 percent we should focus on. “Besides our genes and the situations that we confront, there is one critical thing left: our behavior. Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities … The potential of the 40 percent that is within our ability to control, the 40 percent for room to maneuver, for opportunities to increase or decrease our happiness levels through what we do in our daily lives and how we think.” I find this passage in particular to be so empowering! Though our happiness is not all in our control, 40 percent of it is. Hallelujah!

And happiness is a worthwhile goal for another reason. Lyubomirsky explains that happy people tend to be healthier, more effective at work, more energetic and of greater benefit to the people around them. So the “construction” of happiness has many benefits beyond improving your own state of mind.

The Work of Happiness

“If you want to reap long-term emotional benefits from a happiness activity, you need to devote persistent effort,” Lyubomirsky writes. “Of course, if you identify with and enjoy what you are doing, you’ll be more energized and committed.”

I think most can agree that to achieve anything meaningful in life, hard work is involved. Whether it is sports, education, hobbies or work, one must put forth effort to achieve results. I have discussed related concepts, such as the 10,000 hour rule developed by Anders Ericsson and made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in the book the Outliers. To master a skill, deliberate practice is needed.

In Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open, he talks about hitting the ball more than a million times — more than any of his fellow competitors. Lyubomirsky’s research reveals that “if you desire greater happiness, you need to go about it in a similar way. In other words, becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes that require effort and commitment every day of your life. Pursuing happiness takes work, but consider that this ‘happiness work’ may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.”

This really resonates with me. As a result, over the last decade, I have begun to shift a lot of energies to happiness work, not just exercise work, education work, family work and “work” work. This happiness work has paid off across all other aspects of my life — not just the sheer fact that I am a happier person. There have been numerous benefits to putting in the effort to construct my own happiness.

The Happiness Activities

In the second part of Lyubomirsky’s book, she discusses 12 specific activities for increasing happiness through deliberate practice and intentional behavior. They are organized into six categories:

  1. Practicing gratitude and positive thinking: expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, avoiding overthinking
  2. Investing in social connections: practicing acts of kindness, nurturing social relationships
  3. Managing stress, hardship and trauma: developing strategies for coping, learning to forgive
  4. Living in the present: increasing flow experiences, savoring life’s joys
  5. Committing to goals
  6. Taking care of body and soul: practicing religion and spirituality, taking care of body through meditation, physical activity and acting like a happy person

If I went back through my Monday Motivator posts since the beginning, I am certain I have discussed at least half of these behaviors at some point. Lyubomirsky offers a diagnostic test to see which of these happiness activities resonate with you. She does not believe you have to do all of these activities all the time, but you should be practicing some of these every day. Each category could have its own blog post, but I want to highlight a few based on my personal experiences.

Expressing Gratitude

This is not something that was common in my life outside of being polite and saying thank you. Frankly, it did not come naturally to me. Through daily morning practice of keeping a journal, I have learned to embrace gratitude for many things: from waking up each day (which is a blessing in itself), to all the people who help make my life easier, to the gift of my children, and more. There are literally endless things to be grateful for, and I see gratitude as the “light.” Darkness cannot survive in the light, so your mood inevitably leans toward happiness when you practice gratitude.

Learning to Forgive

As far as the happiness activities go, this one is really tough. It’s amazing how much baggage I have held on to without realizing it. Someone once asked me why I was letting a bad situation take up so much real estate in my mind. This question really helped me visualize things. In the end, I have a monopoly on what real estate is allowed to exist in my mind. So why not replace deserts and unusable land with plush and vibrant land? This concept is simple, but not easy. Anytime I find myself fixating on an event or person, I work to replace that real estate with something more productive.

Committing to Goals

Goals have been key for me. I love setting an exciting goal that aligns with my purpose. I enjoy the planning and the journey. Whether I want to achieve something educational, spiritual, work-related or fitness-based, I always set a goal. It provides all the motivation I need to execute. Whether it’s achieving our BHAG at Learning House (e.g., 35,000 students) or finishing my second Ironman in under 12:30, I have the fuel I need to try really hard every single day without it feeling like “work.”

Investing in Social Connections

This is something I need to do more of. I often feel too busy given what often seems like an endless to-do list, but every time I get a chance to serve others or connect with a friend or interesting person, I feel like my life is better off. I personally need to make this more of a habit.


In conclusion, none of these activities are brand new to people who have been studying positive psychology, but Lyubomirsky puts them together in a relatable way. My biggest takeaways are:

  1. The “construction” of happiness is possible.
  2. Like any other big task or goal, happiness takes hard work that never stops.
  3. We have 40 percent of our happiness in our control, which feels like enough to tip the scales.

I challenge you to apply some of these happiness principles in your life and see what positive results you achieve.

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