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.

Last time I moved home I made sure my new place wouldn't be too close to work... (emphasis mine)

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.

We hate commuting. It correlates with an increased risk of obesity, divorce, neck pain, stress, worry, and sleeplessness. It makes us eat worse and exercise less.

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:

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 share these because they are all instances of using my cursive-based hand control on something not obviously connected/related. I learned to inlay literally by watching one video and reading one instructable. Again, the cursive was all that allowed me to look at the video and instructable and think, "Wow, I think I might actually be able to do that." So I tried and think I succeeded.

Ok. Long comment. Just trying to get something on the board about trying to find potentially useless skills (wow, I can write like a kindergartener), and applying them to other areas. I've simply replaced a pen with a diamond tipped etcher and a router and made some things that were very satisfying to me and increased my happiness. I've made three of these boards for birthdays now and giving them away is quite satisfying as well. Since others have seen them, I've also been able to find three who are willing to buy them from me, which is also quite satisfying!

Think outside the box when it comes to skills -- you may do something you think is mundane but that could be put to pretty neat use elsewhere.

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!

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!

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 (the oft-cited "hedonic treadmill", and footnotes 7 to 18 above), does that mean that the actual "happiness" has not changed, or only that the scale has been recalibrated? How would one tell?

Maybe, somewhere in the above references, these questions are answered. But if not, the issue casts doubt on a lot of the results cited in the article.

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.

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.


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).

You could make an index page in the wiki, with a link and short description for included articles.


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.

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.

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 you are happy reduces happiness? As far as I know very few empirical studies have been done and this idea is mostly based on philosophical speculation by people like J.S. Mill and Sigdwick ("The paradox of hedonism").

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 escape any box" arguments. I think 'peak oil' and even global warming are much more important threats for the foreseeable future. I don't think doing mathematics is the right way to begin thinking about friendliness, although this mathematics is interesting in its own right, which is really the main reason why I'm here.)
  9. I'm unemployed and not looking, without even a half-serious plan about 'what to do next'. (I'm not claiming benefits either. That takes even more effort than working!)
  10. Of course I don't have a romantic partner.
  11. I stay indoors 24/7.
  12. I rarely 'challenge myself' with any kind of non-trivial task.
  13. I'm never 'mindful' in that sense, except 'mindful' of how I'm wasting my life.
  14. Aha! Well at least I'm avoiding consumerism since I never actually buy anything.

Funnily enough, I don't feel unhappy, or at least I don't feel as though I feel unhappy. I do think killing myself would 'objectively make things better' though.

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.

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.

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?

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. They seem not only to develop empathy, but also personal happiness (although that is not a stated goal). Generally, the serious studies that have been done on different meditation techniques have found that they work as advertised...

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.