How to be Intentionally Happy

What makes you happy?

Money? The newest iPhone? The good health of your family? A promotion at work?

Some interesting work by University of California, Riverside researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky not only suggests where our happiness comes from, but shows how to get more of it.

Pieces of the happiness pie

Dr. Lyubomirsky proposes that there are three components to happiness:

  • A genetically-based “happiness set point”
  • Life circumstances
  • Intentional activities and practices.

She has broken these three areas into percentages regarding how much they are responsible for your happiness.

Although the variability of the happiness set point is currently undergoing more research, Lyubomirsky cites studies that indicate the set point is responsible for 50% of your overall happiness.

Life circumstances – things like the aforementioned iPhone, family health, and work promotion – account for only 10% of your happiness.

That leaves intentional activities aimed toward positive emotion providing you with 40% of your happiness quotient.

Now, here are a couple of important things to know:

  • Your happiness set point is genetic and therefore impervious to change. The theory is that no matter what happens – good or bad – you tend to eventually settle back into your inherited level of happiness. So, there’s no use trying to make an impact on your happiness set point.
  • You could try to improve your life circumstances by getting more stuff, striving for career goals, and finding the perfect partner. But not only do life circumstances only account for a small percentage of your happiness, they are subject to a very human process: hedonic adaptation. In a nutshell, this means that we very quickly adapt to new things in our lives, so our happiness about it is short-lived.

Taking action toward happiness

So that leaves us with intentional activities as the remaining piece of the happiness pie, a piece that creates 40% of our well-being. Lyubomirsky believes it is this component that we have the most control over and that allows us to take action rather than merely react when it comes to creating happiness.

So what are these activities that promote positive emotions and well-being? Lyubomirsky suggests three well-researched practices:

1. Committing acts of kindness. Doing nice things for others tends to up your happiness quotient. Curiously, Lyubomirsky found that doing several acts of kindness on the same day – rather than spreading them out through the week – generated the greatest jump in well-being.

2. Expressing gratitude and optimism. Keeping a list of things you are grateful for really does help make you happier. An intriguing note on this component is the discovery that making a list one time per week created a greater boost in happiness than making lists three or more times per week.

3. Processing happy and unhappy life experiences. This is where it really gets interesting. It turns out that talking or writing about your life experiences is helpful in only one of these conditions: the negative experiences.

Why? Apparently, talking to a friend or writing about difficult times in your life helps you to create a story and structure around the event, an act which helps you make sense of it and adjust to the experience more easily.

Positive experiences, however, generate more happiness if they are thought about privately. This allows you to savor and re-experience them without having to analyze them. It’s perfectly fine to talk with others about great things that happen to you as this will brighten your friend’s day, too.  But be sure to remember and relish those good events in your life in your private time, too.

What makes you happy? Slice yourself a bigger piece of the happiness pie using intentional activities. You’ll be happy you did.

Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel specializes in helping people face life’s significant challenges and regain their resiliency. In addition to seeing clients in her private practice, Bobbi is a well-regarded speaker and writer. You can find her blog at

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Related Reading:

Finding Bliss: How to Reverse Engineer Happiness

The 6 Components of a Happy Life



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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