Home All The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky – Book Review

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky – Book Review

written by Kathryn Britton 23 January 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

The How of Happiness coverIn the spirit of the Oscars, I nominate Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want for best single book about positive psychology to have on the shelf. There are many great books around these days, including books that go into specific topics in more detail. But when you need to recommend a book to a person who will read just one, I think this is it.

Part 1 addresses the questions, “Is it possible to become happier?” and “Why does it matter?” When I was growing up, my mother frequently commented that happiness was lagniappe — that’s a Cajun word that roughly means the 13th in a baker’s dozen. The baker may choose to throw it in, but is not obligated to do so. So I grew up thinking that the pursuit of happiness was a silly goal.

Sonja explains why taking action to be happier is not a silly goal, though construction of happiness is a better description than pursuit. She argues that one’s happiness is about 50% determined by genetics (the happiness set point). Then only about 10% is determined by the things we tend to pursue in the name of happiness: life circumstances such as wealth, possessions, occupation, living conditions, family relationships, church membership. The remaining 40% is determined by habits, behaviors, and thought patterns that we can directly address with intentional action. She argues that it is much more fruitful to address the 40% associated with our own behavior than it is to pursue the 10% associated with life circumstances.

Happiness is not a silly goal for another reason. Sonja explains that happy people tend to be healthier, more effective at work, more energetic, and of greater benefit to the people around them. That’s an important message for the general public.

Part 2 contains 12 specific activities for raising happiness through intentional behavior:

  • Practicing gratitude and positive thinking – (1) Expressing gratitude, (2) Cultivating optimism, and (3) Avoiding overthinking
  • Investing in Social Connections – (4) Practicing acts of kindness and (5) Nurturing social relationships
  • Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma: (6) Developing Strategies for Coping and (7) Learning to forgive
  • Living in the Present: (8) Increasing Flow experiences and (9) Savoring life’s joys
  • (10) Committing to goals
  • Taking care of body and soul: (11) Practicing religion and spirituality, (12) Taking care of body through meditation, physical activity, and acting like a happy person

None of these are brand new to people who have been working in positive psychology, but she puts them together into a cogent way that is very accessible to general readers. Her notes include references to other sources for people who want to go deeper — perhaps read Bob Emmons’ book on gratitude or Csikszentmihalyi’s book on flow. Some of the 12 activities have multiple variations that make them adaptable to individual circumstances. Most come with brief descriptions of the research that shows they make a difference. Readers may say “Ho hum” when they see a strategy such as “Celebrate good news,” or “Hug frequently,” but she includes research information that may make them look at these strategies with new eyes. She also addresses limitations of various approaches. Journaling may be effective for coping with difficulties, practicing optimism, and committing to goals, but it can get in the way when trying to savor more.

Here on Positive Psychology News Daily, we’ve had numerous discussions about how to find the right fit between person and activity. Sonja devotes a chapter to selecting activities that fit a person’s interests, values, and needs. The chapter includes her Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic adapted from work by Ken Sheldon to help a reader select four best-fitting activities. She mentions some empirical validation of the effectiveness of the diagnostic tool. It seems somewhat less mature than some of the individual activities, but then, it is breaking new ground.

Part 3 addresses the secrets to abiding happiness. Any of the 12 activities is good while it lasts, but how do we make it last? She discusses timing and variation, social support, and motivation, as well as the science behind turning happiness-inducing behaviors into habits.

I thought it was very responsible to include a postscript addressed to people who are depressed, “I should stress, however, that although a program to become happier can positively be attempted by those who are depressed, relief from depression is not what this book promises.” She includes some very useful information to encourage them to seek help elsewhere.

To conclude, this book contains a very practical program for the general public to put many aspects of positive psychology in practice in their daily lives. It doesn’t cover all of positive psychology. For example, the importance of identifying and applying strengths is notably absent. But it cuts a wide swath with clear descriptions of research, practical suggestions, and engaging examples. Last week a friend asked me what one book she should buy on the subject, and this is the one I suggested.



Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Associated Web site: http://chass.ucr.edu/faculty_book/lyubomirsky/index.html

YouTube clip of Good Morning America with Sonja Lyubomirsky (about 4 minutes)

YouTube clip of 20/20 episode with Sonja Lyubomirsky (about 6 minutes)

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Jeff Dustin 23 January 2008 - 6:38 pm


I give the book and your article an A++! You’ve caught the spirit of the work and the finer points, not an easy feat.

Senia 24 January 2008 - 8:50 am

What a fabulous review! Thank you, Kathryn!

Timothy 24 January 2008 - 7:50 pm

Thanks Kathryn!! I read this book as well, but definitely cant write such wonderful review like you did 🙂 I really learn so much by reading the artilces here written by you all. Thanks!

jeffdustin 25 January 2008 - 11:09 am

A great point that Sonja L. raised was goodness-of-fit. I’d go so far as to claim that if an intervention fits well enough, that magic word…motivation…will follow sooner or later.

Of course, people change. What fits now, eight Snickers bars later, no longer snaps around the waist. I think that is a neglected dimension of Fit. You have more life experience than I, but I’m sure your goals at fifteen were somewhat different from your goals at 21, 35, etc.

As a personal note, I’ve been actually completing some of the best fitting exercises. They work.

Kathryn Britton 27 January 2008 - 10:08 am

So what changed, Jeff? You said earlier that you thought the book was great but you weren’t doing the exercises. Now you’re completing exercises. Had you not done the “best fit” diagnostic before? Is it what made the difference?

In your earlier comment, you said “Doing the exercises feels so corny & awkward, especially the gratitude-based ones.” I’m not trying to throw your words back at you. I’m just extremely curious about what changed your mind — what gave the rider power over the elephant.

(Reference to earlier comment:


Jeff Dustin 27 January 2008 - 6:51 pm

Which article was it that you described Fuzzy Logic? I’d say my motivation is on a fuzzy scale where .0 is totally unmotivated and 1.0 is gung-ho, obsessed. Of course you could do 1 to 10 or 0 to 100 percent but I kinda like the “.” system. It just sounds scientificky.

I’d say that my motivation was at .95 for reading the book and .1 for doing the exercises at the beginning. Later I found the perfect level of stress and pain that pushed me to try the exercises. I find the boredom of insomnia extremely motivating! So I tried the Best Possible Self (BPS) exercise and you know, my life took a new direction. Dreams and goals I had forgotten sprang to mind. I wanted what I wanted to want.

I’m a verbal-auditory learner and writing a journal of the BPS really made the imagery more concrete in my mind’s eye. The BPS got me daydreaming, which I find inspirational as well. The upward spiral ensued. I set some goals on paper, like your husband’s to-do list.

That’s the story thus far.

Kathryn Britton 27 February 2008 - 7:47 pm

I’ve added 2 YouTube links to the review of The How of Happiness for those who like moving & aural messages. One is Sonja on Good Morning America (about 4 minutes), and the other is Sonja on 20/20 (about 6 minutes). Check out the bottom of the Reference section.

Jeff Dustin 27 February 2008 - 11:15 pm

Those two clips were fun to watch and informative.

Margarita Tarragona 6 March 2008 - 6:06 pm

I am reading the book right now and this morning I was thinking of writing Sonja, though I hardly know her, just to thank her for writing such a great book. I have already given it as a gift to several friends and agree with you that her way of making research easy to understand is remarkable. And thank you too for your review, well written and succint.

Kathryn Britton 6 March 2008 - 8:33 pm


I think authors enjoy getting appreciative mail from their readers. It helps them believe they aren’t dropping words into a black hole. So go ahead and write!

Thank you for your comment about the review.


Mike 3 September 2008 - 3:23 pm

I am getting this book to how it differs form others. BUT..this is nothing new. Dr Michael Fordyce’s “The Psychology of Happiness” was written in 1987. These are the things make people happy. He also has 14 videos. So it seems a common theme.

From: Chapter 3

The “Fourteen Fundamentals” are fourteen, highly characteristic traits of happy individuals, according to years of collected research.

Each of these 14 happiness traits, according to the research, make a significant contribution to the happiness that the happiest individuals enjoy.

All of these fourteen happiness traits can be developed by ordinary individuals.

And finally, virtually anyone who develops these characteristics will become noticably happier.
The above are the major proposition which underlie the happiness program we have developed…

The “Fourteen Fundamentals” are:
1. Be more active and keep busy.
2. Spend more time socializing.
3. Be productive at meaningful work.
4. Get better-organized and plan things out.
5. Stop worrying.
6. Lower your expectations and aspirations.
7. Develop positive optimistic thinking.
8. Get present-oriented.
9. WOAHP — work on a healthy personality.
10. Develop an outgoing, social personality.
11. Be yourself.
12. Eliminate the negative feelings and problems.
13. Close relationships are #1 source of happiness.
14. VALHAP — the “secret fundamental”.

Kathryn Britton 4 September 2008 - 5:27 pm


Many of the 12 top-level ideas are very, very old, and yes, they do overlap extensively with Fordyce’s list. What Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book contributes are specific activities that have been studied empirically, descriptions of the studies, and the best-fit chapter about how to pick the ones that are most likely to work for you AND that you are most likely to practice until they become habits. There has been a considerable amount of new research since 1987, so it’s also an update on what’s known.

Thanks for the reminder about Fordyce.


Mike 5 September 2008 - 7:21 am


Thank you for your feedback, and you are welcome. I am going to read Sonja book. My goal is to become more of a happier person. After reading Sonja book, I would be able to take the best of both research and see where it takes me.

I have been applying some of Fordyce fundamentals. Its not magic, or overnight cure but it does work. It takes lot of insight and lot of work. Its not that hard to become happy, its fun to do and it’s worth it.

I am looking forward to reading Sonja book, and apply some of her suggestions. Both research could be applied, if someone wants to be happier in his/her life.

Thank you, have and have a great day


Nick Outlaw 6 August 2010 - 10:40 pm

I couldn’t have said it better. Those are the ingredients I’ve had when being my happiest!


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