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




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 50/50 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).



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Great post. Several quibbles:

The wealth -> happiness current data is changed every year. Last study had a monotonic positive relationship between wealth and happiness to $60K/y. Will Wilkinson had this a while back.

Parenthood also has a complex relationship with happiness. In general, it appears to decrease young folks happiness, and increase older folks happiness, as of the last thing I read. Read Will Wilkinson and Bryan Caplan here.

The Kahneman TED video: ( ) on happiness, suggesting that experienced happiness and remembered happiness are effectively ENTIRELY different things is an important caveat here. I actually think it's probably the most important thing to be known about happiness.

You also don't address very well (and probably shouldn't in a how-to) the serious methodological difficulty of happiness research. Rating happiness on a Likert scale is a weak way to rate happiness, and one prone to intra- and inter- personal comparisons with ones self and reference group...whether or not one has a buzzer.

For instance, my move from Chicago to California has allowed a great deal more outdoor/sun time, which increases happiness...but after a couple years, I'll have forgotten the reference group of Chicago, and will rate my daily happiness based on my current baseline, not my current Chicago-including reference. .


1 more bit to remember:

Commuting really really sucks. Least happy part of almost everyone's day, who does it. Minimizing commute is a not-inconsequential path towards increased happiness.

I avoid this problem by biking as much as possible. Granted, this wouldn't work if I lived in the suburbs an hour's drive from work, but since I live about a 15-minute drive, that works out to a 35-minute bike ride. Multiply that by two for every day I work, add whatever extra minutes I spend going to friend's houses or grocery shopping, and that's a lot of outdoor aerobic exercise, which improves my mood hugely. And I arrive at work awake and pumped even for 6 am shifts.

True -- I hate to drive, but altering one's commute can actually make it fun. I listened to a helluva lot of atheist-v-theist debates from Luke's site while driving in my car. I've also considered taking the bus so I can read more. The bus would increase my time by 3x but I think would contribute to improved orderliness in my schedule and devouring more knowledge. So... a boring annoying commute provokes thoughts of self-harm, but I think there are definite ways one can make the commute enjoyable -- mainly by making it 1) interesting and 2) productive. Listening to some educating audio does both.
Since I started listening to interesting and/or entertaining things, I really enjoy my commute. I usually get through two books each month (I have an Audible subscription) and several podcasts, along with other talks etc. that I stumble across on the interwebs. Last time I moved home I made sure my new place wouldn't be too close to work (either by walking, or cycling). Granted, there's probably other ways I could achieve the same result, but this is nice way of combining regular mild exercises with learning that also means I get to save money on rent by not living right in the middle of the city.
Well that's unusual! Looks like you've found a great use for your commute as well. Now that MN is warming up, I'm hoping to get out the road bicycle and get to work that way. I'll have to look for something like Audible, as well. I think I could "read" more if I listened during so called idle time. On the other hand, I find it quite more effective if I take notes on the books I read. I think that would be harder without text in front of me.
Here's a good roundup of the research on this.
Yeah, you're right that the experienced/remembered happiness thing should be included. I've added it.
The wealth/happiness mapping has the disadvantage of being easily politicized, since it bears directly on the utilitarian calculations informing optimal tax rates. I only know of one nation that explicitly claims to optimize happiness, but I'd be surprised if all the drivers of variability in the data were entirely unbiased; certainly some related metrics seem to be intended primarily as normative rather than descriptive.
Ditto the Kahneman TED talk. Very insightful. Like Luke, I was UNhappy for a long, long time. Then it hit me one day and I've never been unhappy for very long since. Here's my thoughts on happiness:
new link:
This link is broken too. copy:

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

This is not the sort of thing you can give "an answer" to. Other studies have found that age, intelligence, attractiveness, and money correlate well with happiness. A recent study found that money correlates with happiness up to $75,000/yr, which I would not call poverty. Health, wealth, and happiness all correlate so strongly that picking one out as causal is difficult. And other studies have found that parenthood correlates negatively with happiness while your children are living at home; I expect it corresponds positively once they've moved out.


Regarding improving/learning social skills for introverted people, I think conversing with oneself may be useful. It can be quite difficult attempting new ways of socialising with other people if you have self-esteem issues.

I have an introverted nature, and speaking practice with myself has shown some benefits.

Hold a conversation with yourself, speaking out loud, about any subject that comes into your mind. You must keep the conversation flow consistent, don't complete sentences in your mind, every thought must be verbalised. It may help to pretend that there is someone listening in, ensure that what you're saying will make sense to that listener.

You may talk about the events that have happened during the day, make it as elaborate and interesting as possible. Talk about some interesting events that have occured in your life, try and inject some humour into it. I've found that I become more skilled at recalling events in greater detail, I can also use these constructed stories in a real social gathering later.

Recording your conversation on video camera and viewing it later may also provide some additional insight into what you should improve on. I suggest (like anything you're trying to master) performing this activity everyday.

Please note: While I have no studies to back this up, I am basing this on personal experience, I've noticed that after a 10 minute session I feel more witty and talkative.

I've never heard of this and it sounds very plausible.

I just wanted to say how amazing this blog is. I really admire the person that took the time to research all of this wonderful information and put it all together as one for someone like me to read. I'm planning to do my best to live by what you've said and promise to try harder than ever to get myself out of this low/depressed mood that has been with me for the last 10 years. Thank you so much, and please continue your incredible work!

Hi Rachel, welcome to less wrong! I hope you find being here helpful in improving your mood.

This was great, Luke. I didn't see anything in the post or replies about developing skills that aren't explicitly social/extrovert-focused (other than the perhaps the related encouragement to operate in "the flow"), so I thought I'd share a personal story of such development.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, my handwriting was terrible. My mom bought me one of those learning-to-write-cursive books where you just copy letters over pages and pages, using a bot and bottom solid line and a dashed middle line as a guide.

This drastically improved my handwriting, but I think it also increased my fine-motor skills or something, as I found I had the ability do things like calligraphy and, more recently, fine-ish woodworking. I share this because I think the skill was more or less learned, and the knowledge that I have done the cursive book let me look at other things and think, "I think I might be able to do that." For examples, see:

I... (read more)

Sounds like you have experienced those 'success spirals' I mentioned in my post!
I suppose so, yet it was quite "stumbled upon!" I shared it in hopes that it would open others' eyes to similar possibilities, especially if one is thinking he/she has nothing in the way of happiness-improving-skills. A completely different route would be to find how one's "rational" skills could be used to benefit others. I made a go at debunking a multi-level-marketing scheme (far from perfect and needs another rewrite, but it is what it is). Or take a look at the neat stuff on flowing data; perhaps some users here could think of other ways to help others visualize data. I guess the point remains the same: if you're looking for something you can contribute and which increases your "skills satisfaction" -- I think you can find it. It's immensely satisfying for me to contribute to things like the Arch Linux forums or give a whirl at answering questions on StackOverflow. I'm not sure what the exact "recipe" is here, but my current guess would be that anything that helps you feel that you 1) have a "fringe/minority" ability of some sort (therefore increasing sense of that skill's value), 2) get recognized for that skill, and/or 3) have something tangible (physical gift, work of art, effort on a graph/paper, or posted answer that helped another) as the result... will increase happiness. Maybe there's a website featuring a long "list of skills" that others could peruse to help inspire ideas of things to try? I googled around and mostly found things on Yahoo answers suggesting learning guitar, magic/card tricks, how to juggle, and how to shoot a gun.
I had a similar experience in the realm of cooking and baking after watching several seasons of Good Eats about 5 years ago. I wasn't exactly a stranger to the kitchen before that, but I didn't really have the confidence to try new or technically tricky recipes until I'd whisked up a few batches of mayo and cooked variations on AB's split pea soup a few times. I probably wouldn't have tried perfecting my rye bread recipe as I did a few years ago (well, nearly perfected) nor tried my more recent experiments with preserves and candymaking without that initial grounding in success. By the way, if you happen to be making an extra cribbage board in the near future I'd definitely be interested!
That's fantastic! It does help to not fail abysmally at one's first try. I think that's what that cursive did for me -- it kind of laid the groundwork of the skill via something that didn't matter in the least (who cares if I write outside the lines in a book?). I will add a note to keep you posted on the cribbage boards!

This is a great post. I don't mean to hijack it, but it's amusing to me to match up the happiness advice with my own life. So skipping over 1 and 2 on the list:

  1. -
  2. -
  3. I'm extremely introverted, cannot read body language or facial expressions very well. For instance, I scored 22 in this.
  4. I'm very low in self-esteem.
  5. I have a tendency to be "disagreeable", as I'm sure several people on this website would agree.
  6. It's not far wrong to say that I procrastinate away 100% of my waking hours.
  7. Well OK, I do feel gratitude to the people who are funding my current existence. But perhaps 'gratitude to' is the wrong phrase. More like 'guilt at wasting the resources of'.
  8. I have no sense of purpose whatsoever. (I certainly don't believe in the Lesswrong ideology! For instance, I'm not a utilitarian, I don't think "explicit utility functions and priors" are at all the right way to think about building an AI, I disagree with the fundamental premise that there isn't anything stupid (as opposed to unfriendly) about optimizing paperclips. I don't think cryonics is worthwhile. I don't think UFAI is necessarily a dangerous existential threat - I flatly don't buy the "it can escap
... (read more)

I have a tendency to be "disagreeable", as I'm sure several people on this website would agree.

I disagree.


I think I've been in a similar situation. Last year, I decided that I didn't like how my happiness fluctuated with events that happened in the outside world. I metaphorically detached myself from the world, so that I didn't particularly care what happened to my life. It had gotten to the point where the question, "Where do you see yourself in five, ten years?" was not even in the space of thoughts that I entertained. Then, I got a girlfriend (she asked me out), and I was immensely happy for a few months until we broke up. Before the relationship, I wasn't particularly unhappy, nor was I happy. But the relationship helped me realize that severing yourself from the world leads to a stale existence. You have to learn how to plug yourself back into the world and find a low-volatility way to find happiness from your pursuits.

Just out of curiosity, how are you now, a little more than a year later? Taking out "3", that seems harder to change, how much of these points still apply in your life?
Well at least you don't feel unhappy! One concern I didn't mention above is that unfortunately, pursuing happiness consciously can in some cases lead to unhappiness, because you are constantly paying attention to how happy or unhappy you are, and over-analyze the situation. So if you decide to try to change any of these things, probably best to pursue them for their own sake rather than for the sake of happiness, since you don't feel unhappy today.
Sorry for the necro, but I just wanted to say that much of this applies to me or applied to me not too long ago, and in a weird way I feel a little bit better knowing that someone else is in the same boat. I mean, I already knew logically that I'm not the only one, but seeing someone describe it in detail is different. How are you doing, over a decade later?

What is happiness? That is, what are people intending to point at, when they use this word?

For the last few weeks I've been running an app on my phone called mappiness. At random times during the day, it asks you how "happy", "relaxed", and "awake" you are on a scale from "Not at all" to "Extremely", and what you were doing at the time. I find myself at something of a loss in choosing an answer. I mean, I can be pleased or displeased about specific events or longer-lasting situations, but a general concept of "happiness" does not seem to be a part of my experience. I don't see an actual thing here. (This is not the first time I've had occasion to wonder what other people are talking about, when they use certain words to talk about certain aspects of their internal experience.)

What are psychologists asking for, when they ask people to rate their "happiness" on a scale from "Not at all" to "Extremely" or from 0 to 10? In literal terms, they are asking for a point on that scale. But what are they getting? What do those answers mean? If the answers don't change following some piece of good fortune... (read more)

Nice post. It seems like a good summary of important results from happiness science, with interesting ideas about how to increase one's social skills added. Some comments:

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

I'm surprised that you don't mention the trait neuroticism, which in many studies has the strongest correlation with happiness. (see eg) In general, neuroticism and extraversion are far better predicators of happiness than conscientiousness and agreeableness (even if the latter traits have some effect).

One benefit of religion may be that it gives people a sense of meaning and >purpose

Interestingly, religion doesn't correlate with happiness in more athestic (compared to US) european countries like Sweden. One way to explain this is that much of the effect is socially mediated and that less of the effect is meditated by finding meaning in life.

Many people report that constantly checking to see if they are happy actually >decreases their happiness

Do you know of any studies showing that checking if yo... (read more)

Based on The Happiness Hypothesis, there are three things that have been shown to increase your tolerance for setbacks: meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Prozac. All three help you take negative things less seriously.

(Better references upcoming once I my friend returns my copy of the book to me. Or someone else who has it can give the cites to the relevant research.)

My tolerance for setbacks can be increased dramatically by knowing how to fix it.
That sounds about right, though having supportive intimate relationships will also increase tolerance for setbacks. That recommendation, as well as meditation, therapy, and pills, are given in the original post.

On the learnability of conscientiousness, see Roberts et al. (2009).

I looked through the cited chapter on Google Books, and while it had many interested citations and one for Conscientiousness increasing over age, IIRC, it didn't say anything on learnability that I saw. Could you be more specific than a review chapter for this claim?

Good question. I cited a review article here because, as with other members of the Big Five, conscientiousness is a broad and complicated thing. What the review article allows you to do is see what happens when conscientiousness is factored into its subcomponents, for example impulse control and dependability. I'm afraid I no longer have the book with me, so I can't point you to the individual studies, but I remember it reviewing strategies for improving one or two of the subcomponents of conscientiousness. I think it would help if you can find the book in which that article appears at a local library.
I see. I guess I'll keep an eye out for citations on developing Conscientiousness. It correlates with so much! (
I don't think I would say "not hard to improve", but unfortunately I'm reacting from my memory of that review article.
Slowly going through your PDFs I've downloaded, I ran into It calls it 'industriousness' rather than Conscientiousness, but it certainly sounds like training Conscientiousness to me.
Have you found more material on ways to increase conscientiousness since writing the comment above?
No. Drugs still seem like the best option.

Keeping a gratitude journal has been one of the most useful improvements to my own happiness levels. (Have been keeping it for four months now!)

I'd agree with this. I've been doing it for over a year now and have a whole notebook full of gushy, sentimental writing about my friends, family, nature, art etc. that I would never in a million years let anyone else see. One thing I would add - Writing a gratitude journal once a week has been shown to be more effective than doing it daily (Sonja Lyubomirsky 2007) I guess if you do it every day it becomes a chore and you don't do it with any real emotional investment so it becomes less effective. Great article, thanks Luke
I started off daily, and now make entries when I have particularly awesome entries to write. This ranges from the serious - "Skydiving was amazing, I loved the rush of wind against my skin, gazing down at the water and beaches" to more me just being silly "some days, my mind is boggled by the very fact that we are alive. existence is cool!" It provides an incredible happiness boost when I read old entries!
I found two publications by Lyubomirsky in 2007. Only one contained something remotely similar to your claim: However, this is about "kind acts", not about a "happyness journal". Can you clarify the daily-weekly claim?

Regarding the development of agreeableness/empathy: there are meditation techniques specifically intended to do this. (They are variously called "Metta", "Lojong", "Tonglen", or (yuck) "loving kindness meditation"; all of which are pretty similar.) These originate in Mahayana Buddhism, but don't have any specifically religious content. They are often taught in conjunction with mindfulness meditation.

I don't know whether there have been any serious studies on these methods, but anecdotally they are highly effective... (read more)

Of course I'm keeping my eye out for literature on improving empathy. All the reviews I found so far said that we're not sure how to do that yet, because the studies do not give strong and clear results. Most of the literature is about trying to train medical workers to have empathy.
Roots of Empathy seems promising, but I don't know whether it's been tested in adults. EDIT: Fixed link.
tl;dr Roots of Empathy says caring for babies nurtures empathy.
Emotional awareness is a skill that can be cultivated, and increases one's agreeableness. Watch a disagreeable person in action and it's pretty obvious that they're not really picking up how other people are reacting to their behavior. Note that it's much easier to see disagreeable behavior is in others than in oneself. The challenge in becoming more agreeable lies partly in seeing oneself as others see you.
I am very interested in that. My roommate told me horror stories about his STNA (State Tested Nurse's Aide) training and I would like to know if any progress is being made in this area.
(nods) I began a Metta practice for mood management after my stroke (among a variety of other things) and found it very helpful. I still pull it out from time to time when I'm feeling particularly isolated. The usual caveats about other-optimizing apply, but within those limits I endorse this.

You might consider talking to a knowledgeable woman about adding a couple of good references about clothes for women... it's not actually true that all women already know what to do or how to find out.

Sure. Anyone know any good sources on that?
I enjoy (and learn from) What Not to Wear, although it's probably not the most efficient way to learn about clothes, make-up, hair styles, etc. It's often pretty amusing though. Also good is the original BBC version. There appear to be some resources on both of those websites, and a number of related books, but I haven't used/read any of them. ETA: One of the things the show taught me is that, especially if you're not that experienced with fashion, you often have to try on a lot of clothes to find something flattering. Unfortunately that can be both frustrating and time-consuming; but to some extent knowing some of the "rules" that the show teaches about what's flattering (and the different rules for different body types) can at least help that process go a little more smoothly.
I've been looking around for a while, and I haven't found the book that I wish existed -- guides to style for women are more often about "expressing yourself" than systematic "this looks good, this looks bad" manuals. The closest I've found is What Not To Wear. -- there's also a matching book. Of the fashion magazines, Lucky is the most practical -- the clothes are almost affordable and there are sections that detail how to put together a pretty outfit. Still trying to figure out clothes, though. "Flattering" is hard to pin down. More advice would be welcome.
Thanks to SarahC and Airedale for pointing me to What Not to Wear. I've updated the post.
It's not a fashion magazine, but I find a lot of the fashion advice in Real Simple to be quite helpful, and some (although not all) of the featured clothes are affordable. The website looks like it has some good resources too.

Great stuff!

IMHO, you should consider labeling your "Win at Life" posts as a sequence at some point.

I leave the task of identifying the precise moment when a series of posts becomes a sequence to the philosophical faction of LW.

Maybe. How would I do that? What does 'labeling it a sequence' mean, exactly?
When I did it, I wrote the whole thing in advance, made a first post that listed all the titles, and turned those titles into links as the posts themselves went up. And then I went around calling it "a sequence".
What they said: 1. make an index page with links to all the articles, 2. add it to the "Sequences" wiki entry, 3. start calling it a sequence. I think that only Eliezer and Alicorn have actually done this, but then you're exceptionally prolific!
I assumed that you meant indexing the posts with a tag (and calling it a sequence).
Too late. Already did it. :) Thanks.
You could make an index page in the wiki, with a link and short description for included articles.
Thanks. I added the wiki page and linked it from the sequences page and each of the member posts of that sequence. I called it 'The Science of Winning at Life' to pick out that distinctive feature of the posts on instrumental rationality I've been writing: heavy citation of the scientific literature.

I consider myself a very happy person, but I am going to lose myself in all these things you linked to just because they all seem so damned interesting.

It's okay though, I'm happy about it. Thanks for all the work you put into this post.

I suffer from depression (but the ADHD is a lot of fun) and many of the things listed have helped me. I would also suggest the use of comedy. I intend to show yer list to my new therapist. I think it will be handy in planning my treatment goals. Thanks, and nice foot notes.

Best of luck! I hope you and your therapist can figure out which steps (whether I listed them above or not) will work for you.

I'm sure that major life circumstances (external events) greatly affect happiness levels - divorce, death of a loved one, major illness, losing one's job or home. People adapt but it could take years to return to previous levels of happiness, if ever (Lucas).

I got to this blog because I thought that by delving into research on happiness, I would find a way back to happiness; it's been five years since I lost it. What I've learned is that the authentic happiness I felt while married and raising a family - now replaced by singledom and an empty nest - will ... (read more)

This sounds like serious depression to me, not just reduced happiness; you might consider method 1 first. Sympathies and best wishes.

Tim Ferriss says seeking happiness is vague and foolhardy, and you should instead seek excitement.

I think the usefulness of that advice depends on how much you like excitement.
There is quite a bit of truth to this statement. I've added a disclaimer to the original post, toward the end.
Do you agree?
Happiness is the side effect of accomplishing my goals, but trying to seek it specifically has never worked. Perhaps "excitement" is not the word I would use, but my chief motivation to continue working on the things I do is to meet interesting people, understand how intelligence works, and make myself more intelligent.
I don't think this is post about seeking happiness so much as it is opening oneself up to happiness, but yours is a worthwhile point as well.
Along these lines, don't the studies in your (OP's) Note 16 (to the effect that happiness is largely heritable and "unmoved by external factors") suggest that efforts to improve happiness are largely futile? From the Lykken & Tellegen study: "Happiness or subjective wellbeing was measured on a birth-record based sample of several thousand middle-aged twins using the Well Being (WB) scale of the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ). Neither socioeconomic status (SES), educational attainment, family income, marital status, nor an indicant of religious commitment could account for more than about 3% of the variance in WB. From 44% to 53% of the variance in WB, however, is associated with genetic variation. Based on the retest of smaller samples of twins after intervals of 4.5 and 10 years, we estimate that the heritability of the stable component of subjective wellbeing approaches 80%." (Emphasis mine)
"Highly heritable" does not mean "immutable".
Genes might explain the variation in well being via behavioral or attitudinal effects. Since lukeprog's recommendations largely concern ways to modify our behavior and attitudes, there is no inherent contradiction with the genetic research. Behavior and attitudes might be crucial even if heritability % were in the high 90s. By the way, for formatting help on lesswrong, click on the help button at the bottom-right of the comment box.

Apparently, the joys and stresses of parenthood balance each other out, as people with and without children are equally happy (Argyle 2001).

Is this the most recent result? Lately I've seen the "parenthood makes you less happy" result being toted around a lot in the popular press, though being the popular press, they didn't give proper references.

It's complicated. Marital satisfaction and happiness change throughout the 'family cycle.' Newlyweds are pretty happy. Having a kid is the lowest point. Having adolescent kids is better than infants, and not as bad as commonly thought. Couples who have sent their kids out into the world experience rising happiness, near newlywed levels.

But yes, those first few years after birthing a new child are definitely the worst. So in that sense, parenthood makes you less happy. But it doesn't last. As the kids grow up, happiness goes back up again.

BTW, the best solution to the 'marriage sucks after having a kid' problem seems to be this: change your expectations. :)

I went to see a panel of female mathematicians talk about work and life once, and the predictable question came up, "How do you balance work with parenthood?" Among the answers was the comment "Kids are only small for about five years and they're only at home for eighteen." When you think about it, the period when parenthood conflicts directly with work is a very small proportion of your working life, unless you have lots of kids.

Every time I hear that question asked of married heterosexual female professionals, I want them to answer "More or less the same way my husband does."

I'd prefer that their answers about equal responsibility for parenting be consistent with their answers for equal right to be awarded disputed child custody. Holding either consistent position (mothers' parenting presence is essentially special in very important ways that can't generally be replaced by fathers, or mothers and fathers should be treated equally) seems less wrong than opportunistically switching between one position to justify extra parental rights and roles in divorce and the other position to justify equal parental responsibilities and roles in marriage. (Of course, my simple dichotomy shatters into more possibilities if marriage is considered a custom contract defined by negotiation between the spouses. But marriage and family law in general seem very nearly a one-size-fits-all status defined by government, with only a small admixture of contract (pre-nups and such) having AGAIK almost no legal force regarding child care and custody. Thus I don't think the dichotomy is a gross distortion.)
Similar things are true about attitudes towards adoption by same-sex couples, and about single parenthood in general. Anyway, for my own part, I endorse the idea that parenting is not a gender-specific attribute, and that it's a job far more easily shared by several adults than entirely handled by one. That said, I also endorse the idea that parenting is a skill that develops with practice, and my priors for a given parent having put significant time and attention and effort into the practice of parenting is higher for women than men in my culture. I would add that divorce does not in any way obviate either parent's obligations towards, or relationship with, their child. In particular, I'd say that to think about child custody as a privilege that some parents are granted and which other parents deserve equal access to, or as a resource that parents have contractual obligations regarding the dispensation of, is already getting it backwards: rather, both parents share equally the obligation to make custody choices in the child's interest. I recognize that many divorcing parents are unable to discharge that responsibility, and that courts often have to step in. And I agree that the courts generally adopt a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't reflect the actual interests of each individual child, and that's unfortunate. Come to that, I recognize that many married parents are unable to discharge that responsibility, and that's unfortunate too. It remains their responsibility.
I speak with the most knowledge only to attorneys, but for many heterosexual male married attorneys (particularly the more senior ones), a huge part of their answer about balancing work with parenting would be that they have a spouse who does not work outside the home or who has a significantly less time consuming job. On the other hand, most heterosexual female married attorneys, including the most senior ones, cannot give this same answer because they do not have a spouse who is situated in the same way. I also think that U.S. society at present (although this may be changing) puts higher burdens/expectations on women than men for how involved they should be in child-rearing, so even for many couples where both partners have demanding jobs, in most, though of course not all, cases, more of the child-rearing tasks fall on the woman.

When you think about it, the period when parenthood conflicts directly with work is a very small proportion of your working life, unless you have lots of kids.

What's disappointing to me about this overlapping proportion of your life is that the kids are small (and most demanding) exactly over the same period of time when your work is most demanding (when you're trying to get tenure). I'm disappointed because I'm not the best parent or the best scientist that I could have been if they were staggered even by just 5 years.

At the moment, I feel more critical of the tenure system and -- to be honest -- am jealous that I am juggling parenting and trying to get tenure while my single colleagues have potentially an extra 20 hours a week to work on their research. While I know that having children is a choice that I made, the biology is such that I should have kids now ... and the tenure system, which requires your most productive work in your thirties, is not sympathetic to this biological fact.

I only recently began feeling dissatisfied. Until recently, I instead felt somewhat guilty and greedy about trying to have it 'all' -- a family and a career. This is because I see that many wome... (read more)

I instead felt somewhat guilty and greedy about trying to have it 'all' - a family and a career.

Just chiming in to say that "wanting to have it all" is good and absolutely not something to feel guilty about, as long as it doesn't make your failures more painful. Whenever people around you say or imply that you "ought" to be "humble", they're wrong and you're right.

Yes, I needed to first consciously recognize and then reject the meme that trying to optimize beyond what others are doing will be punished by fate. There is the story of the greedy monkey that is an example of this meme. There's a grain of truth to the parable, so I would have to think about the distinction to be made about when to apply it and when not to.
The fate does punish, through improbability of unusual success. One would be guilty for not taking this improbability into account, and correspondingly for not heeding the heuristics that point it out. Sometimes the heuristics are wrong, and the plan is solid regardless of what they tell (for other reasons), which is where one shouldn't feel guilty for disregarding them.
You're right, it isn't fair. I'm not at that point in my life yet, but I've seen how rough it can be, and I probably don't know the half of it. From what I can see, on the outside, the difficulty is that academia is a very "career-tracked" world -- you absolutely must do A before you do B, and what's more, it's assumed that you'll do it at a specific age, too. That would have to change to make it less crazy for women.
I'd like to point out that this craziness is not specific to academia or to women. If you look carefully, you'll realize that society in general strongly expects people (of both sexes) to be at certain stages of accomplishment by certain ages, with those who fall off this "track" being penalized by means of a permanent status ceiling. The problem is that society can't make up its mind about whether it wants to award status based on age or accomplishment. If age, then people should be allowed to start a new career at any age without status penalty. If accomplishment, then most people of any age won't have much status anyway, so switching fields wouldn't be any more unusual or a problem than it is for today's college students. (There's no need for anyone to reply with the economic, historical, etc. reasons why things are the way they are. I'm just pointing out that I don't like it this way.) In fact, now that I think about it, this is probably what is really going on with all that mythos about youth in mathematics: the real story isn't that people can only do great work in their 20s, but that youthful accomplishment = status, to such an extent that the kind of people who could make great contributions in middle age if they were given 20 years to study the subject before publishing (or permitted to switch in from another subject) aren't allowed into the field at all.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky
Erm, I strongly suspect that doing great work in your 20s is not just about status.
Actually, I'm starting to suspect it is. (Well, not literally "just", of course.) My current theory is that people who do great work in their 20s don't do so later mainly because: (1) their status is already secure, and they don't have to work as hard to maintain it; and (2) continuing to work on the highest level would require them to study the ideas of (and thereby subordinate themselves to) lower-status younger folk. This theory came to me when I observed that some older academics appeared to have lost their intellectual curiosity, not just their physical stamina (or whatever variable people think it is that causes the [alleged] phenomenon). That said, my comment was actually about why we don't see people do great work later after failing to do so in their 20s, not why we do see people who do great work in their 20s fail to do so later. The point was that, after some had done great work early, having-done-great-work-early became a coveted, even necessary, status signal.

This sounds right.

When looking at the people who started scientific revolutions, it is the middle-aged, not young, who are overrepresented.

It also needs to be noted that during the last couple of hundred years, the amount of scientists in the world has been constantly increasing. The net result has been that there have always been more young researchers than old researchers, since more members of the younger generations have chosen to become scientists than happened in the previous generations. This has led to an illusion of youth being a requisite for scientific discovery, since there have been more young scientists and therefore also more young scientist geniuses than old scientist geniuses.

Scientific performance, as measured by the number of publications and the frequency of citations for those publications, increases steadily over time and reaches its high point around age 40 at least in chemistry, geology, mathematics, physics, psychology and sociology.


Cole, S. (1979) Age and Scientific Performance. The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 84, no. 4, 985-977.

Wray, K.B. (2003) Is Science Really a Young Man's Game? Social Studies of Science, vol. 33, no. 1, 137-149.

Als... (read more)

I think you can explain almost all of this by the fact that within the rules of academia, middle-aged professors do MUCH more administration, grant-writing, editorial work, and "management" in general than people in their 20's and early 30's. The scientific world appears to need management, and we've decided to allocate the management work by age/seniority. My experience with senior professors is not that they've gotten too dim or lazy to do research (ha!) but that they wish they had more time to devote to research.
That's the standard explanation (at least among people who don't buy the traditional magical theory of youth), and was my previous theory. Actually, really, they're theories of different phenomena. People who don't do as much research simply because they're busy administrating aren't really "declining with age"; they just literally aren't spending as much time. The hypothesis I presented above was an attempt to explain the nature of specifically-age-related (but non-medical) intellectual decline, such as it exists. The two cases can be distinguished by observing whether the senior professors return to pre-administration levels of productivity after they become emeriti.
Thank you soo much for putting this together! Have you considered elaborating on the ideas in a sequence? And (like Alicorn and others did) to put the ideas into stories.

Recently in school, we were asked to rate our attributes and social skills on a scale of (0-5 ) For example are we good with other people, are we understanding etc. We were also asked about our self esteem. I put down 3- meaning average( Big, fat lie) I used to have high self-esteem, I never cared much of what others thought of me. But for the last few years I've been put down so much, I'm surprised I can still smile. Last year was especially tough. I went through horrible stuff and ended up having to see the school councilor. I was depressed almost ev... (read more)

But you are still taking your emotional baggage with you, so why do you expect your life to change for the better? What will you do differently this time and why?

Not to sound ungrateful about the list, but isn't there some dissonance between 3 and 14? Avoid consumerism, but buy lots of the expensive clothes in these mass-market consumerist guides?


Consumerism is buying in the vain hope that the act of purchase will bring happiness, or failing to see that many advertised items will bring you low value compared to their price. Being anti-consumerist doesn't prevent you from buying useful tools after evaluating their price to be lower than their value to you. Many geeks underestimate the value of good looking clothing as a social tool.

Now, you can argue that our society would be better if we didn't judge people by their clothing, but you live in a society that does - and so for you, clothing is a tool to alter how you are judged. The ideal clothing may not be the most expensive or the most trendy, but most of us on this site probably buy clothing that is insufficiently trendy.

It is also worth note that you can often get nice clothes for about the same price as less fashionable clothing, if you look in second hand stores. (although this may require more time shopping, and be dependant on where you live)
Thrift stores are awesome. I discovered this a little under a year ago and have since acquired some of my favorite clothes via thrifting. For cheap :D
I wasn't disputing the importance of clothing (and a PUA was my guide for shopping in NYC), and I certainly wasn't trying to argue that it would be better if people weren't so judged as a reason not to wear better clothes! I was disputing whether you need to spend at that level, buying from and heeding the very marketers lukeprog despises in 14. And the justification you gave, that "spending on lot in this area is different because it will really bring me happiness", is not distinguishable from what people are thinking when they are consumerist.
At this point I think it might be productive to taboo "consumerist"; the connotations seem to be getting in the way. What I've gotten out of the conversation so far is that (a) buying things based on an exaggerated estimate of their future value tends to make people less happy; (b) buying things based on an accurate estimation of their future value tends to make people happier, and (c) rationality techniques are helpful in deciding which is which. That seems entirely consistent to me, and using mass-market consumer guides to help estimate social capital while trying to ignore the actual marketing seems sane if a little risky. I'd also be willing to entertain the possibility that a lot of people in the central LW demographic cluster are buying less than the optimum for their happiness. I'm almost certainly guilty of this; most of my net worth lies idle in my checking account, where it does no one any good.
Well, I'm not sure what concept -- whatever the name -- lukeprog is carving out when he warns about consumerism. His advice amounts to "don't blow large amounts of money thinking that the stuff you buy will make you happy ... unless I approve of it". Whatever failure mode he was trying to encompass by talk of consumerism surely must cover buying straight out of a fashion magazine. The fact that it "really works" is no defense -- all acts of "blowing large amounts of money to be happy" seem like that!
Some people buy things just because they think buying things will make them happen, which is what the consumerism stuff is about. From your words I suspect you don’t quite grokk this, probably because it’s a very silly state to be in and you’re lucky enough not to be in it. (I’m having a bit of trouble with the concept myself, though it does happen to me too.) The point about the clothing (“stuff he approves of”) would perhaps be more precisely expressed as “it’s a good idea to be dressed/accessorized/etc close to whatever silly thing society decides is ‘current fashion’ because this improves your interaction with other people”. The article expresses this as “buy fashionable clothing” because “buying” is the usual way of owning fashionable clothes. You can satisfy point 3 by making your own clothes or wearing (inconspicuously) cheap knock-offs or any other method; buying is not necessary, it’s just the usual method. The apparent contradiction between 3 and 14 is a bit like the apparent contradiction in an (imaginary) article about digital photography that advises to pick a camera with at least 4 megapixels (i.e., worse than that is probably too low for good photos), but that you shouldn’t give in to the hype about megapixels (i.e., it’s not the only thing that’s important, and you hit diminishing returns way before whatever is “top of the line”).
The kind of consumerism I advise against is the kind of consumerism that seems to make people unhappy according to the specific research papers I cited. Also, for men at least you don't have to buy very many clothes at all. You just have to buy the right ones, and know how to wear them.
That's not very helpful (and warpforge should not have been modded down for his/her reply if it was by one of the participants in this subthread -- that would be kind of petty). I'm pretty sure the research papers don't specifically carve out an exception for expensive clothes shown on models in high-class fashion magazines. Feel free to use your deep knowledge of these articles that you did read to prove me wrong though! Alternatively, you could just admit that this is an exception to your general warning against consumerism -- that buying expensive clothes shown in the glamorous magazines in the hopes that it will bring you happiness actually works. Unless you're planning on wearing the same $500 suit appearing in these magazines and can find hairstylists that make you look like them, yes, you do. Yes, but that truth could have been discerned from a dictionary, without any empirical research.
This post was a whirlwind tour of happiness research. Those who are interested can follow what I've been provided to learn more. It sounds like you're not interested enough to do so, which is fine. It took me more than 15 hours to research and write this post, and not everyone has that kind of time. But I do plan on doing more posts in the future to elaborate on some of the topics and methods I rushed over in this post. Perhaps I'll eventually do one specifically on consumerism, so you won't have to read the papers yourself.
Luke, if you actually read the articles you're relying on, it shouldn't be that hard to explain the relevant parts in this context. If you don't have an answer, all you have to say is: "I'm sorry-- I didn't notice the dissonance before. I'm sure there's a way to follow expensive fashion advice without falling into the trap of consumerism, but I really only read the abstracts so I can't quite explain how to walk the line." That's it! That's all you have to say. It's not hard, and it avoids the need to get snappy and shift blame to others.

Okay, in brief: what the research seems to indicate is that materialistic goals (ends) may lead to unhappiness, especially if they lead to ever-growing desires for material goods (which they often do). Also, those focused on financial success tend to derive less satisfaction from other aspects of life (the Nickerson paper).

So that is why I recommend (at least) two things: Get nice clothes because it helps your social life, but also beware the threat of consumerism. Beware the pursuit of material goods for their own sake. Material goods are often of value, but don't let them run away with you. And certainly don't make money the focus of your efforts and passion.


But what if, e.g. you personally assign a large preference to avoiding conforming to modern fashion standards. For example, I think it is bad to vote for modern fashion with dollars because it is an unsustainable industry. I don't have enough dollars to buy "sustainable" clothing. And I also don't value the social opinions of others if they are based largely upon the way I dress. It would feel painful for me to take steps to be fashionable. If you told me today that my future self would adjust to being fashionable, would have no moral qualms with that, and would feel somewhat happier as a result, this would make me currently feel deeply unhappy about the person I would become.

Also, where can we find more specific instruction about how to "find a more fulfilling job"? I spend many hours thinking about this, talking to the career counselors for my grad program, writing LW posts about it, talking with campus representatives, friends, family, etc. I also scour the internet for job listing, the BLS descriptions of jobs (which are essentially the same as O*Net), etc. I feel that 2+ years of doing all this effort on an almost daily basis has not taught me a single thin... (read more)

"The time [sic] of consumerism I advise against is the kind of consumerism that seems to make people unhappy according to the specific research papers I cited." When writing an essay about achieving happiness, it's not very helpful to define a term as inherently causing happiness or unhappiness, even if you can point to the literature for clarification. You end up with the tautology that "doing X -- which is defined as causing happiness -- makes you happy" or the inverse. The rest of the essay is a rather nice survey of achieving happiness; I'll be sure to point some friends at it.
Sorry if this was unclear. Nobody is defining consumerism as causing unhappiness. It's an empirical claim that certain kinds of consumerism cause unhappiness, and those are the kinds of consumerism I'm advising against. I fixed the typo, thanks.

This is the best thing I've seen on lesswrong. Thank you!

From personal experience, the times when I've been happiest are:

a) The weeks after the time during adolescence when I entered an altered state of consciousness induced by meditation and music during a christian summer camp and believed that I'd had a spiritual experience - this cured the issues with eating disorder / depression that I'd had before (whereas professional counselling was totally ineffective) but I regret that at the time I was too young to be able to interpret my experience rationally. Maybe this is why religion correlates positively with hap... (read more)


It seems the statement "I am happy" can mean one is experiencing an fleeting positive reaction to external reality or it can describe the speaker as someone who does a lot of BEING happy, who is mindful of the way the impact of positive and negative stimuli on their consciousness is integrated into their perception of the world and tries to steer the process in a way that shifts the baseline of their perceived happiness higher. One could just decide to be happy all the time and through practice achieve this, but the rationalizations required to s... (read more)

So what happened after that? Did your technique stop working?

Thank you, Luke!

I was feeling down today and even reading about this gave me a tiny boost. Thanks!

Chatroulette seems interesting to me... I will try it over the next few days and see if I actually notice any improvement. I find socialising easy and natural when we have something in common (like an interest in games, computers, rationality, programming, or music) but am completely at a loss in other situations. Any chances I can get to talk in a less stressful environment are appreciated. Speaking of which, where can I get statistics on how many less wrong readers there are in each city? I want to see if there are enough in Winnipeg Manitoba to make starting one worthwhile.

Maybe look for a speed-dating event in your area. I recently participated in one, and it was great fun. You spoke to each person about five minutes, then moved on. In the end you gave the organizers a list of the people you wanted the contact information of, and for each person you'd marked, you got the information if they'd also marked you. At first, I was at loss at what the heck I was supposed to be saying in order for us to get familiar in five minutes. But although the event only lasted for maybe an hour or so, I thought that by the end of the event, I'd already gotten considerably better at it.
I know there's somebody near Winnipeg. I think he's interested in meeting other LWers, too. I've pointed him at this comment.

Improve your self-esteem and optimism. This is tricky. First, too much self-esteem can lead to harmful narcissism.

A friend of mine uses a great trick here. She has very high self-esteem (though maybe not higher than the esteem that I hold her in) but doesn’t come across narcissistic at all because she’s also very warm and empathetic with a lot of care and curiosity for the people around her. These multiply and are therefore particularly uplifting for those around her: I (for example) not only feel interesting but I feel so interesting that I’m interesti... (read more)

Hi Luke wondered what you had learned ref happiness since writing this? Thanks


I wonder, do any of you ever feel like you're not allowed to be happy, as long as there is so much we still need to solve in this world?

For example, a thought that could spring up: I am sitting here reading blogs/playing videogames and procrastinating my schoolwork. While at the same time we have a global warming problem, poverty in poor countries, and plastic polluting our oceans. Should I dedicate my time to educating people about recycling/ or maybe even becoming a scientist to invent better solar panels? Or should I stick with my plans and dreams that... (read more)

They're definitely appropriate responses. First, let's distinguish two different things: 1. Being happy 2. Engaging in desired leisure activities Since it's very difficult for, say, depressed people to fix the world's problems, I think being happy is actually a step towards solving them, if it gives you the energy and motivation you need. I see happiness as an instrumental goal, not a terminal one. In fact, I suspect you'd be happier when you stop procrastinating and do something that works towards what you really care about. As far as the second point, I know Eliezer has thought about this question, and has said before that if his help wasn't urgently needed to save the world, he would do other things, like be a science-fiction writer. Depends on how much of a duty you feel you owe the world. For instance, suppose you walk past a kid drowning, and you could save the kid with a few minutes of effort. Do you have a duty to save the kid, or is it just a good thing to do, but not required? I think it's worth noting that not sleeping well and feeling bad doesn't help towards either saving the world or reaching your own goals.

Regarding Chatroulette, note also the existence of the similar Omegle.

Added, thanks.


With regard to how you're using the word in your post, does everyone want to be happy by definition, or is it a specific set of feelings which different people may attach different emotional utility to?

Subjective well-being is a complex but useful concept. At the moment, it appears that humans can in principle desire almost any state of affairs. It just so happens that all (or nearly all) humans desire subjective well-being (or happiness). Key books on these subjects, focusing on neuroscience, include the recent Pleasures of the Brain volume edited by Kringelbach and Berridge, and the philosophy book by Tim Schroeder, Three Faces of Desire.
But it's not the only thing people desire or work for, yes? Is something along the lines of 'satisfaction' included in happiness?
Correct. People desire more than just subjective well-being. Let me switch to pleasure briefly. One leading theory is that pleasure is largely the result of a positive difference between expected desire satisfaction and perceived desire satisfaction. That is, if your desire seems to have been satisfied somewhat more than expected, the reward system in the brain tells the pleasure system to fire off some pleasure signals. But we are uncertain of this right now.

The link " is broken. While it seems to be a self help link, it's not fashion related at all. It seems to be just pick up artist trick


cost rica: happiest, stable sunny/warm (keeps that thermal variation discomfort and seasonal affective disorder away!), most renewable (sustainable), least militaristic country..oh and yeah, like you said, your neighbours are poorer so downward social comparisons are aplenty!

RIASEC link is broken ( in "a RIASEC personality test might help") - google returns this: as the top alternative

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.

I found this useful for updating my views on what conditions are conducive to happiness:

There a better change that the average girl reading LW has female friends who know something about fashion than that the average guy reading LW has male friends who know something about fashion.

As for social skills, I found to be a very insightful and comprehensive resource.

The biggest thing I think this article could use is a mention of Martin Seligman's research on optimism, which I've found to be extremely helpful:

Learning how to be systematically optimistic is, I think, the only way to make a sustained change in this area.

I'm finding it increasingly frustrating in figuring out how to get into a job I will enjoy. I took the RIASEC test(Holland Code is that the same thing?) and came out as IAS. I agree with the IA part but the social part is less clear. Wtf can I do with that code once I have it? Anyone have any suggestions please? I'll provide a CV if that helps with suggestions.

Edit: CV

Why did you choose the particular books recommendations that you did? Do you have reason to believe that they are particularly useful (over other books of the same type)?

#Wasted Effort

I'm not sure if this is the best place to post this, but I did not find any others.

I have created an account here to seek some help, since this seems like a more thoughtful, hesitant environment than most.

Recently, I have come to a bit of an existential crisis. It is likely a product of the Existential Angst Factory. It sounds like a plot to a shitty romantic comedy, and I would laugh if it weren't that it was happening to me. I fell in love, to the extent that I can define idea, with my housemate's live-in "fuck buddy" in whom h... (read more)

I'm a proponent of introspection. That's how you figure out what is really going on with yourself. Psychotherapy may be helpful in your case as you may need someone to call your attention to self-deception. We are all guilty of it so dont take that as a criticism. I'm not sure exactly why your introspection is not bearing any fruit. If you are brave and honest with yourself but also forgiving and understanding with yourself your introspection should lead to greater self-understanding and a clear picture of where you are and how you got there. I hope that helps.

Great post. Not sure about most of this, but I do believe that people can be predisposed to happiness. I know to be fact that some of the most unhappy people can become happy by learning how,

I'd just like to say thanks for posting this. Cogent, researched, cheerful, and helpful.

Also, I didn't even realize there are people out there who can still use proper English. Actually, your command of English is so incredible, I'm having a bit of trouble understanding what you're saying. In my defense it's not my first language.

I took the personality test suggested and I was blown away! So enlightening to understand myself more :)

Very good article - hopefully it will put me on path to a fulfilling and happy life. Excellent piece of work. :-)

Re: The correlates of happiness - my only quibble I was previously under the impression that health was a big correlate of happiness, at least at the same level as a successful relationships, etc. In both cases I think a sudden changes lead to corresponding unhappiness or happiness and that over time happiness will return to close to the initial levels. Curiously, in the health footnote you specifically claim look at the unhappiness of people w... (read more)


Some of the text formatting in this article are broken on the browser Opera. The first lines of the numbered paragraphs have expanded whitespace, and the last words of one line are hidden by the sidebar.


Good article, thanks for it.

I just noticed that the link to the documentary about the deliberate invention of consumerism by Edward Bernays no longer works. What was the name of the document please?

4EvelynM The Century of The Self, by Adam Curtis

This is a great piece of work, thanks for taking the time to put it together!


You mention that meditation may help. Do you have a study to back this up, or is that speculation?

See the three footnotes (30, 31, 32) in the paragraph on mindfulness.

I know this doesn't add to the discussion, but I have to ask: Was this posted in the discussion section some time back? Because I seem to be having an extreme case of deja vu reading the first part, otherwise, and I don't find that particularly likely.

The paragraph on correlations was also given in 'Scientific Self Help', part of the same sequence.

I'm skeptical about the whole practice of studying happiness and trying to be happier based on this body of knowledge. Who knows what self reports actually mean? Social dynamics play a huge role in determine how happy people claim to be. Moreover, the entire enterprise of feeling good for its own sake strikes me as reactionary. Focusing on the personal ignores the social conditions response for so much suffering. I have the same complaints about zen. As Martin Luther King said, I'm proud to maladjusted about the horrors that surround me. I wouldn't want to be content under current nightmarish circumstances.

Recursive functions need base cases.
Being unhappy doesn't fix anything.
I view unhappiness, like pain, as useful information. If you find your hand over a burner, you turn off the flame rather than reconditioning yourself to enjoy the sensation of scorching flesh. Doing otherwise risks losing the limb entirely. Why should I react differently to oppressive and idiotic social circumstances? I desire external rather than internal change. As a side, note, this piece reinforces the sort gender ideology and interpersonal hierarchies that contribute to making life unbearable: "Dudes, do this. Girls, do that." It assumes monogamous romantic relationships to be natural, correct, and omnipresent. To the extent that this sort of conformity makes happiness, I want no part in it. Instead I encourage anger and rebellion.
Pain is not always useful information. Once I've burned my hand, turned off the burner, and treated the burns, my pain becomes much less helpful, and much more likely to distract me from whatever I might want to get done over the next few weeks. Particularly if I'm intelligent enough to remember the hand is injured and not re-injure it. Also, for example, phantom pain from amputated limbs.
Lingering pain more-or-less keeps one from overusing an injured body part. (AFAIK phantom pain is entirely dysfunctional.)
Agreed. I do think that in some cases (most humans) we could do with a fair bit less of the lingering pain, and that is why I use painkillers when injured and treat my symptoms when ill (generally speaking). In reference to the original discussion, unhappiness and anger tend to be more like lingering pain than the instant pain of injury. And while these negative emotions are useful, we often do not need the full "dosage" that our brain supplies (of course, the dosage varies widely from person to person)

I was unhappy for most of my life

I can't remember the last time I felt unhappy for longer than 20 minutes.

Just goes to show, this Lukeprog is actually an uploaded copy of the original, and at the time of writing was around 20 minutes old.

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But im not happy