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So You Really Want to Be Happier? Three Simple Rules that Everyone Needs to Know

By on April 27, 2011 – 12:22 pm  5 Comments

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.


Gratitude, courtesy of kateausburn

In the Positive Psychology Masterclasses that I co-present with fellow University of East London MAPP graduate, Miriam Akhtar, the important role that gratitude plays in boosting well-being often comes up. Gratitude is active when people write thank-you letters, reflect on three good things at the end of the week, or simply say, “Thank you,” to someone (and really mean it).

But our participants often balk at the prospect of reading out loud a Thank You letter to the person they want to thank. It seems that this kind of overt display of positive emotion is a step too far. “Posting a letter is one thing,” said Katrina, “but I couldn’t stand in front of [Mrs  X] and read it out loud – way too embarrassing, for both of us!”

As it happens, we’re in good company here: Thank you, Sonja Lyubomirsky, for being honest enough to admit that expressing gratitude doesn’t float your boat either.

The Importance of Fit

During our MAPP program, when we were assigned to test out various happiness-enhancing activities on ourselves and report back, we often argued about the idea of fitness. Some of us found that a particular exercise worked really well, and we may even have continued to practice it after our assignment was handed in, whereas other students couldn’t get on with it at all and stopped at the earliest opportunity.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky devotes a whole chapter to the question of suitability, pointing out that although it’s widely accepted in the domains of diet and physical health, thinking about whether a particular approach will suit us isn’t something we often do when considering our emotional and psychological health.  She explains three elements of suitability: fit with the source of your unhappiness, fit with your strengths, and fit with your lifestyle. The advice is that choosing appropriately will vastly increase your chances of succeeding when you’re contemplating doing any exercises to increase your well-being.

On top of suitability, her new research with her colleagues Rene Dickerhoof and Julia Boehm (University of California, Riverside) and Kennon Sheldon (University of Missouri, Columbia) suggests there are two other important factors which influence your chances of increasing your happiness when you carry out an evidence-based happiness exercise: your motivation and the effort you invest.

Longitudinal Study

In this study involving approximately 330 students, Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues gave participants two choices: they could choose to participate in a happiness intervention or they could choose to participate in a cognitive exercises study. Participants in both groups were randomly assigned to one of two empirically-validated positive exercises or to a control activity, each of which involved writing for 15 minutes per week for 8 weeks, as described below:

  • Evidence-based exercise 1: Expressing optimism by writing about an imagined future ideal self
  • Evidence-based exercise 2: Expressing gratitude by remembering times when you were grateful to another person and writing a letter to that person (but not sending it).
  • Control Activity: Writing about what you did in the past 7 days

Well-being was assessed using a range of measures at the start of the study, at the end of the 8th week, and again another 6 months later. The degree of effort and energy that participants put into their writing exercises every week was assessed by independent coders who ranked it on a 7 point scale.

The Motivation Effect

The researchers interpreted self-selection into the happiness intervention group as an indication of motivation to become happier. They hypothesized that that the ones in the happiness intervention group that performed one of the positive exercises would report greater gains in well-being than those in the cognitive exercises group, even though they completed exactly the same empirically-validated happiness activities. They predicted that participants in the experimental conditions in both groups would report greater gains in well-being than those in the control condition.

The Effort Effect

Researchers also predicted that those participants who exerted more effort would demonstrate a greater boost in their well-being compared to those who exerted less effort, and that the effort effect would be strongest in the two experimental conditions and weakest or non-existent in the control condition.

The Results

Bright Optimism

   Bright Optimism courtesy of Theen Moy

As a whole, combining both happiness intervention and cognitive exercise groups, there was no significant difference in the well-being levels of the participants who completed the two empirically-validated exercises compared to the control group either at the end of the 8th week, or at the 6 month follow-up.

Given that expressing gratitude and optimism have been shown in other studies to increase well-being, this may come as a surprise. The researchers explain this in terms of the role played by one’s motivation to be happier. In other studies, all participants were interested in increasing their own happiness and were aware that this was the purpose of the study. In this research, some participants thought they were signing up for cognitive exercises, but at the start were told that the aim of the study was to improve well-being. In other words, it may be that expressing optimism or gratitude is simply not as meaningful or useful to people who aren’t motivated to practice them.

At the end of 8 weeks the happiness intervention participants reported greater increases in well-being compared to the participants in the cognitive exercise group. The happiness intervention participants who completed the positive exercises reported greater increases in well-being compared to both the cognitive exercise participants who did the same exercises and to those in the control condition.

After 6 months, the happiness intervention participants who completed the positive activities reported greater boosts in well-being than those in the cognitive exercise group who practiced the same exercises and than those in the control groups.

What Role does Effort Play?

In terms of effort, as predicted, the results suggest that the amount of effort we use when practicing positive exercises such as expressing optimism or gratitude does affect subsequent gains in well-being, but doesn’t have a significant effect when we do a neutral or less meaningful activity, such as listing our previous week’s activities.

Day 25: Effort

Effort, courtesy of Toastwife

Research conclusion

The study results indicate that motivation to become happier (in this case demonstrated by self-selection into the happiness intervention group) and continued effort make a difference, but only in the two positive activity conditions, not the control.

Lyubomirsky and her colleagues conclude that happiness activities such as expressing optimism and gratitude are more than just placebos, but that they are more effective when participants are motivated to improve their well-being and put effort into doing them.


We can sum all of this up by saying that if you want to increase your happiness, there are three basic  rules you need to be aware of:

  1. It’s important to do the right positive exercise, It needs to be empirically validated, and it needs to be right for you. If expressing gratitude or optimism doesn’t do it for you, try something else.
  2. You must be highly motivated to improve your well-being, and, if you’re working with clients, they need to be aware of purpose of the positive exercise. Skeptics need not apply!
  3. There’s no getting away from it. You have to carry out the activity conscientiously and persistently. In other words, you need to invest time and effort into practicing. If you think you can take short cuts, forget it!

So with those three guidelines in mind, what will you do differently?




Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11(2), 391-402.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. Great Britain. Sphere. Quotation from p. 100.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.


  • oz says:

    Bridget – This research really brings into question any research done on pp – most of the research is undertaken on cohorts that are into PP.

    Not sure how they can claim to have tested for the placebo – doesn’t satisfy the double blind criteria.

  • oz says:

    Bridget – I had a closer look at the study. You need to be really careful extrapolating these research – predominantly Asian cohort – see this study to understand why

    Also the effect sizes were tiny

    Also looked up the research I have on placebo – the placebo is more effective if you believe in the treatment – this study sort of reinforces that. So not really sure if it tested the placebo or how effective PP is as a placebo.

  • Bridget says:

    Thanks for your comments Oz. A lot of PP research seems to be carried out on people who are interested in or motivated by PP hence in this study they try to disentangle that. The other thing we can’t get away from is that it used psychology students, and they’re hardly representative, let’s face it. Maybe researchers should be banned from using psych students as subjects! The researchers did note this in the ‘caveats & limitations’ section of the paper, as well as the fact that 40% of participants were Asian (20% Hispanic, 17% Caucasian, 5% African American, 5% were Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 6% “more than one ethnicity,” & 7% “other.”) You’re right the effect sizes were small. Though this doesn’t invalidate it. In the paragraph headed ‘were the positive activities effective?’ their answer seems to be no, they weren’t, because as well as having a ‘proper’ (i.e. evidence-based) activity, you need the motivation, and some of the participants didn’t.

    As for the placebo, I agree it was confusing. if it were the case that PP was more than a placebo presumably the PP exercises would have worked vs the control exercises, and they didn’t. I noticed the rather the judicious use of the word ‘but’ in the abstract!
    It seems that there are 2 ways they could have gone about it, to take a group of motivated people and give them control activities to do, or to take a group of unmotivated people and give them PP activities to do. The 2nd option seems logical to me (but this didn’t work) so they must have reached their conclusion from the first – i.e. if PP were just a placebo, the motivated people would have become happier because they thought they were doing PP activities (although they weren’t). Is that the ‘proper’ way to test if PP is a placebo or not?

    The other difficulty is that, unless they’d been living in the closet for the last 10 years, psych students who were interested in PP and/or motivated to become happier would probably know about its empirical base, and would know that simply making a list wasn’t likely to work. Another good reason not to do psych research using psych students.


  • Kevin says:

    The idea that you must seek to increase your happiness levels in order for happiness exercises to have meaningful and lasting benefits is an interesting one. It’s almost like discovering that gratitude and forgiveness are not inherently beneficial… Or maybe it’s like rediscovering that the intention is more important than the activity.

    I need to take issue with one thing: The summary suggests that if I want to increase my overall happiness that (in addition to being motivated) the positive exercises I do must be empirically validated…

    Listening to certain audiobooks, music, and podcasts on my iPod to and from work has significantly increased my well-being over the past couple of months, with scores consistently ranking in the 80th to 95th percentiles of the tests available at authentic happiness. Is this an empirically validated positive exercise?

    Lying on the floor while my baby crawls all over me definitely increases my happiness levels. I’m pretty sure my brain releases serotonin just thinking about it. Is this empirically validated?

    I think that the statement (“if you want to increase your happiness”) in the summary should be revised to “if you are looking to help another person improve their happiness” for the insistence on empirically validated exercises to remain; otherwise it sounds like psychologists believe they are the only key-holders to a locked door leading to happiness and well-being (philosophers and clergymen need not apply).

    I’m a only an informed laymen to positive psychology, but I think better advise would be: try positive exercises you think will work – if you want more certainty than here are some exercises that have proven effective for the majority of motivated participants.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Kevin

    Thanks for your comments – great to see that the older articles are still read! My conclusions were based on this particular research (notwithstanding the view that one should not draw any firm conclusions) and as the researchers were testing both “will’ (as in motivation or appropriate expectations) and a “proper way” (as in an effective happiness-enhancing activity) they had to have empirically-validated ones as well as control activities.

    My personal view is that there are many ways to increase happiness, not just the few empirically-validated exercises. (I say ‘few’ because on our MAPP at UEL we concluded that there were only about a dozen. However, there is some disagreement about this. It has been suggested that if Pos Psych research was subject to the same rigorous standards as ‘proper’ science, then none of the exercises would be classified as empirically validated). I’m also sure there are some people for whom even a validated exercise doesn’t work.

    Some psychologists (such as Michael Frisch and Tayyab Rashid) have written extensively about other activities or adaptations of the validated activities to increase well-being.

    But I think it’s important to tell people about the validated exercises, if only to publicise the fact that they are, by and large, very simple and easy to do, given the knowledge & motivation. I also find it surprising that in the decade or so since pos psych came into existence there haven’t been more.


    PS As for holding the keys to the locked door leading to happiness – some psychologists, like other professionals, seem to believe they are omnipotent, but that’s probably less to do with the profession itself and more to do with personality. You don’t get very far in this world without political nous, a surfeit of confidence and a strength in blowing your own trumpet very loudly and for long periods of time!

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