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Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change
Lyubomirsky, S, University of California, Riverside
Sheldon, K M, University of Missouri-Columbia
Schkade, D, University of California, San Diego
Postprints, UC Riverside
Copyright © American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/journals/gpr/. This article
may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record.
happiness, well-being, set point, hedonic adaptation
The pursuit of happiness is an important goal for many people. However, surprisingly little scientific
research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained,
probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and
hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility
of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors
propose that a person's chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically
determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-
relevant activities and practices. The authors then consider adaptation and dynamic processes to
show why the activity category offers the best opportunities for sustainably increasing happiness.
Finally, existing research is discussed in support of the model, including 2 preliminary happiness-
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 1
RUNNING HEAD: Architecture of Sustainable Happiness
The Architecture of Sustainable Change
Sonja Lyubomirsky Kennon M. Sheldon David Schkade
University of California,
University of Missouri-
University of Texas,
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 2
The pursuit of happiness is an important goal for many people. However, surprisingly
little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then
sustained, likely because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and
hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility
of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, we propose that
a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by three major factors: a genetically-determined
set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant
activities and practices. We then consider adaptation and dynamic processes, to show why the
activity category offers the best opportunities for sustainably increasing happiness. Finally,
existing research is discussed in support of the model, including two preliminary happiness-
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 3
Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change
The pursuit of happiness holds an honored position in American society, beginning with
the Declaration of Independence, where it is promised as a cherished right for all citizens.
Today, the enduring U.S. obsession with how to be happy can be observed in the row upon row
of popular psychology and self-help books in any major bookstore, and in the millions of copies
of these books that are sold. Indeed, many social contexts in the U.S. have the production of
happiness and positive feelings as their primary purpose, and questions such as “Are you
happy?” and “Are you having fun?” fit nearly every occasion (Markus & Kitayama, 1994). Not
surprisingly, the majority of U.S. respondents rate personal happiness as very important (Diener,
Suh, Smith, & Shao, 1995; Triandis, Bontempo, Leung, & Hui, 1990) and report thinking about
happiness at least once every day (Freedman, 1978). Furthermore, the pursuit of happiness is no
longer just a North American obsession, but instead is becoming ever more global, as people
seek to fulfill the promises of capitalism and of political freedom (Diener et al., 1995; Freedman,
1978; Triandis et al., 1990). It seems that nearly everyone believes, or would like to believe, that
they can move in an “upward spiral” (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001) towards ever-greater
Is the pursuit of happiness merely a bourgeois concern, a symptom of Western comfort
and self-centeredness, a factor that has no real impact on psychological adjustment and
adaptation? The empirical evidence suggests that this is not the case. Indeed, a number of
researchers and thinkers have argued that the ability to be happy and contented with life is a
central criterion of adaptation and positive mental health (e.g., Diener, 1984; Jahoda, 1958;
Taylor & Brown, 1988). Bolstering this notion, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues recently
compiled evidence showing that happiness has numerous positive byproducts, which appear to
benefit individuals, families, and communities (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2004; see also
Fredrickson, 2001). Furthermore, Lyubomirsky et al.’s analysis revealed that happy people gain
tangible benefits in many different life domains from their positive state of mind, including
larger social rewards (higher odds of marriage and lower odds of divorce, more friends, stronger
social support, and richer social interactions; e.g., Harker & Keltner, 2001; Marks & Fleming,
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 4
1999; Okun, Stock, Haring, & Witter, 1984), superior work outcomes (greater creativity,
increased productivity, higher quality of work, and higher income; e.g., Estrada, Isen, & Young,
1994; Staw, Sutton, & Pelled, 1995), and more activity, energy, and flow (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi
& Wong, 1991).
Further supporting the argument that subjective happiness may be integral to mental and
physical health, happy people are more likely to evidence greater self-control and self-regulatory
and coping abilities (e.g., Aspinwall, 1998; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Keltner & Bonanno,
1997), a bolstered immune system (e.g., Dillon, Minchoff, & Baker, 1985; Stone et al., 1994),
and even to live a longer life (e.g., Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Ostir, Markides, Black &
Goodwin, 2000). Also, happy people are not just self-centered or selfish – the literature suggests
that happy individuals instead tend to be relatively more cooperative, prosocial, charitable, and
other-centered (e.g., Isen, 1970; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Williams & Shiaw, 1999).
In sum, happy individuals appear more likely to be flourishing people, both inwardly and
outwardly. Thus, we argue that enhancing peoples’ happiness levels may indeed be a worthy
scientific goal, especially after their basic physical and security needs are met. Unfortunately,
however, relatively little scientific support exists for the idea that people’s happiness levels can
change for the better. For example, the happiness-boosting techniques proposed in the self-help
literature generally have limited grounding in scientific theory, and even less empirical
confirmation of their effectiveness (Norcross et al., 2000). Consider a representative best seller,
You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, by Carlson
(1997). Do the five principles work? Do some work better than others? Do the principles work
better for some people than for others? Are any positive effects of the principles due, ultimately,
to placebo effects? If the book actually helps people “get happier,” does the happiness boost
last? Although it is possible that some of the advice given in this and other similar books could
well be appropriate and effective, the authors provide almost no empirical research in support of
One receives little more guidance from contemporary academic psychology. Of course,
research psychologists have identified many predictors of people’s happiness or subjective well-
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 5
being. For example, well-being has been shown to be associated with a wide variety of factors,
including demographic status (e.g., Argyle, 1999; Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999; Myers,
2000), personality traits and attitudes (e.g., Diener & Lucas, 1999), and goal characteristics (e.g.,
McGregor & Little, 1998). However, a limitation of prior research is that the vast majority of
studies have been cross-sectional and have reported between-subjects effects, rather than
investigating well-being longitudinally and examining within-subject effects. In addition, very
few happiness intervention studies have been conducted. Thus, researchers still know
surprisingly little about how to change well-being – that is, the possibility of “becoming
happier.” Doubtless, part of the reason for this neglect is the difficulty of conducting
longitudinal and intervention studies. The problem is further compounded by the tendency of
applied mental health researchers to focus on pathology rather than on positive mental health
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), and by the thorny issues raised when theorists speculate
on how people “should” live their lives in order to maximize their happiness potentials
(Schwartz, 2000). However, we believe the principal reason for the neglect of this question is
the considerable scientific pessimism over whether it is even possible to effect sustainable
increases in happiness.
Historical Sources of Pessimism
Three considerations serve to illustrate the depth of this pessimism. First is the idea of a
genetically-determined set point (or set range) for happiness. Lykken and Tellegen (1996) have
provided evidence, based on twin studies and adoption studies, that the heritability of well-being
may be as high as 80% (although a more widely accepted figure is 50%; Braungart, Plomin,
DeFries, & Fulker, 1992; Tellegen et al., 1988; cf. Diener et al., 1999). Whatever the exact
coefficient, its large magnitude suggests that for each person there is indeed a chronic or
characteristic level of happiness. Consistent with this idea, Headey and Wearing (1989) found,
in a 4-wave panel study, that participants tended to keep returning to their own baselines over
time (see also Suh, Diener, & Fujita, 1996). Thus, although there may be substantial variation
around this baseline level in the short-term, in the long-term, people perhaps cannot help but
return to their set point, or to the middle of their set range: “What goes up must come down.”
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 6
(For a more detailed description of the happiness set point, see below.)
A second and closely related source of pessimism comes from the literature on
personality traits. Traits are cognitive, affective, and behavioral complexes that are, by
definition, consistent across situations and across the lifespan, and therefore may account for part
of the stability of the set point. In support of the latter assumption, McCrae and Costa (1990)
have shown impressive long-term stability for the “Big Five” traits, including the two traits most
closely related to well-being – neuroticism and extraversion. Specifically, people tend to
maintain the same rank ordering in their levels of worry, rumination, and guilt, and also in their
levels of social engagement, enthusiasm, and self-confidence. Because of the close relation
between psychological well-being and these personality characteristics, McCrae and Costa
argued that people also tend to maintain the same relative level of happiness over time (see also
Costa, McCrae, & Zonderman, 1987; Diener & Lucas, 1999).
A third source of pessimism arises from the concept of the hedonic treadmill (Brickman
& Campbell, 1971), which suggest that any gains in happiness are only temporary, because
humans so quickly adapt to change (see also Kahneman, 1999; Tversky & Griffin, 1991). Thus,
although new circumstances may temporarily cause people to become happier or sadder, they
rapidly adjust, and the effect of these new circumstances on happiness then diminishes quickly
or even disappears entirely. For example, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) showed
that after one year, lottery winners were no happier than controls and, furthermore, recent
paralysis victims were not as unhappy as one would expect. Further evidence of hedonic
adaptation comes from findings of remarkably small correlations between happiness and wealth
(Diener & Lucas, 1999), and Myers’ (2000) observation that while U.S. citizens’ personal
income has more than doubled in the last 50 years, their happiness levels have remained the
same. The notion of an individual fighting against the effects of adaptation brings to mind an
image of a pedestrian walking up a descending escalator. Although the improving circumstances
of her life may propel her upward towards ever-greater happiness, the process of adaptation
forces her back to her initial state.
Together, these concepts and findings suggest that trying to become happier may be as
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 7
futile as trying to become taller (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). Indeed, some have argued that
pursuing happiness may backfire altogether, if the pursuit becomes a conscious “extrinsic” goal
that distracts people from enjoying the moment (Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein, in press; see
also Sheldon, 2004) and because striving for happiness may inevitably bring deep
disappointment for many people. From this perspective, rather than seeking an upward spiral,
maybe people would be better off simply accepting their current personality and happiness levels
(McCrae & Costa, 1994). In Zen terms, perhaps one should try to transcend the pursuit of
happiness, rather than trying to maximize it (Gaskins, 1999). Indeed, a number of philo-sophical
traditions embrace the notion that happiness should not be increased beyond an ideal level, one
akin to a “Golden Mean” (Aristotle, 350 B.C./1974) between agony and ecstasy. To be sure,
most people would undoubtedly reject an unrestrained, ceaseless pursuit of well-being.
Present Sources of Optimism
Is the pursuit of happiness futile? We believe not. Despite the seemingly compelling
reasons we have listed for pessimism regarding attempts to elevate levels of well-being, there are
also compelling reasons for optimism. Below we briefly describe four sources of optimism,
returning to consider some of them in greater detail later on. First, some researchers have had
success, albeit limited and short-term, in using interventions to increase happiness (e.g., Fava,
1999; Fordyce, 1977, 1983; Lichter, Haye, & Kammann, 1980; Sheldon, Kasser, Smith, &
Share, 2002). The potential of happiness-enhancing interventions is further reflected in
emerging research in the positive psychology tradition, which is demonstrating that practicing
certain virtues, such as gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), forgiveness (McCullough,
Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000), and thoughtful self-reflection (King, 2001; Lyubomirsky, Sousa,
& Dickerhoof, 2004) can bring about enhanced well-being. Furthermore, research documenting
the long-term effectiveness of cognitive and behavioral strategies to combat negative affect and
depression has encouraging implications for the possibility of elevating long-term happiness
(e.g., Gloaguen, Cottraux, Cucherat, & Blackburn, 1998; Jacobson et al., 1996).
Second, many different motivational and attitudinal factors have been linked to well-
being, factors which are presumably amenable to some volitional control. Examples of possible
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 8
motivational factors include the successful pursuit of life goals that are intrinsic in content (e.g.,
Kasser & Ryan, 1996), concordant with the person’s interests, motives, and values (Brunstein,
Schultheiss, & Grassman, 1998; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995), and
internally consistent (e.g., Emmons & King, 1988; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). Examples of
potentially controllable attitudinal factors include the tendency to take an optimistic perspective
on one’s life situations (e.g., DeNeve & Cooper, 1998; McCrae & Costa, 1986), the inclination
to avoid social comparisons and contingent self-evaluations (e.g., Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997),
and the tendency to feel a sense of optimism or efficacy regarding one’s life (Bandura, 1997;
Scheier & Carver, 1993; Seligman, 1991; Taylor & Brown, 1988).
A third reason for optimism is provided by recent findings that older people tend to be
somewhat happier than younger people (Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001; Diener & Suh, 1998;
Roberts & Chapman, 2000; Sheldon & Kasser, 2001). Specifically, in both cross-sectional and
longitudinal work, older persons report higher life satisfaction, and lower negative affect.
Although these main effects do not always emerge, they are observed frequently enough to
suggest that greater happiness can indeed be achieved over time, not just by a few people, but
perhaps by the majority of people. Indeed, Carstensen’s (1995) socioemotional selectivity
theory suggests that older people learn to structure their lives and pursue particular goals that
maximize positive emotions, consistent with the proposal that people can learn to sustainably
increase their well-being. Further supporting this notion are Sheldon and Kasser’s (2001)
results, which showed that age-related increases in well-being are in part mediated by volitional
changes, including older people’s ability to select more enjoyable and self-appropriate goals.
Yet another reason why genes are not necessarily destiny is that they appear to influence
happiness indirectly – that is, by influencing the kinds of experiences and environments one has
or seeks to have. Thus, unwanted effects of genes could be minimized by active efforts to steer
oneself away from situations that detract from well-being or by avoiding being enticed towards
maladaptive behaviors (Lykken, 2000; Lyubomirsky, 2001). In addition, it is worth noting that
heritability coefficients describe co-variations, not mean levels. Furthermore, even a high
heritability coefficient for a particular trait (such as happiness) does not rule out the possibility
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 9
that the mean level of that trait for a specific population can be raised. Under the right
conditions, perhaps everyone can potentially become happier, even if their rank ordering relative
to others remains stable.
To summarize, it appears there is a paradox: Some theoretical perspectives and empirical
data suggest that happiness can be increased, whereas other theories and data imply that it
cannot. How can these conflicting perspectives on the possibility of happiness enhancement be
resolved? Also, if enhanced happiness is indeed possible, what kinds of circumstances,
activities, or habits of mind are most likely to bring gains, especially gains that can be
Model of Happiness
Accordingly, the primary question of this article is, through what mechanisms, if any, can
a chronic happiness level higher than the set point be achieved and sustained? To this end, we
describe the architecture of sustainable happiness. The integrative model of happiness we
present accommodates the role of both personality/genetic and circumstantial/demographic
factors in happiness. However, it also goes beyond these cross-sectional or concurrent factors, to
incorporate dynamic, time-sensitive factors. This extension allows the question of within-
subject change in well-being, and maintained change, to be addressed. Most important, the
model incorporates the role of motivational and attitudinal factors, consistent with the
assumption that happiness can be actively pursued. We will attempt to show that certain types of
intentional activities indeed offer ways to achieve sustainable changes in well-being, despite the
counteracting effects of adaptation.
Below, we first provide a working definition of chronic happiness. Then we define the
three factors that affect it (genetic set point, circumstances, and activities), and argue that
intentional activities offer the best potential route to higher and sustainable levels of happiness.
Subsequently, we consider some more complex issues pertaining to the achievement of
sustainable well-being via intentional activity, such as the role of person-activity fit, optimal
timing and variety of activity, and the supportive role of sustained effort and positive habits.
Then, in the final section of the article, we describe several preliminary efforts to increase
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 10
happiness, based on our model, and discuss the nature of effective happiness interventions.
In this article, we will define happiness as it is most often defined in the literature – that
is, in terms of frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction, and infrequent negative affect.
These three constructs are the three primary components of subjective well-being, according to
Diener and colleagues (see Diener, 1984, 1994; Diener et al., 1999 for reviews). Supporting the
legitimacy of considering them as indicators of the same underlying construct, we find that the
measures are highly correlated, and typically yield a single factor after negative affect has been
re-coded (Sheldon & Kasser, 1998, 2001; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004). To refer to this group
of measures, we will use the terms “happiness” or “subjective well-being,” although we will also
discuss mood and life satisfaction at times, based on the specific ideas and data being presented.
It is also important to note that we use a subjectivist definition of happiness, which
commonly relies on people’s self-reports. We believe this is appropriate and even necessary
given our view that happiness must be defined from the perspective of the person. In other
words, happiness is primarily a subjective phenomenon, for which the final judge should be
“whoever lives inside a person’s skin” (Myers & Diener, 1995, p.11; see also Diener, 1994).
However, the fact that the judgment of happiness is necessarily subjective does not mean that
influences upon that judgment cannot be studied empirically; for example, researchers might
investigate the effects of factors such as the person’s recent experiences of positive emotion
(Frijda, 1999), the frame in which the question is presented (Larsen & Fredrickson, 1999), the
meaning that the person ascribes to the question (Schwarz & Strack, 1999), and the person’s
sense of making satisfactory progress towards life goals at the time of the judgment (Carver &
Scheier, 1990). We will consider some of these factors in greater detail in a later section.
Finally, the fact that self-reported happiness is subjective does not mean that it is unrelated to
relatively more “objective” variables. For example, research has shown significant convergence
of self-reported well-being with peer and spouse reports of well-being (e.g., Lyubomirsky &
Lepper, 1999; Sandvik, Diener, & Seidlitz, 1993), with the recall of particular types of events
(e.g., Seidlitz, Wyer, & Diener, 1997), with smiling behavior (e.g., Harker & Keltner, 2001), and
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 11
with physiological responses (e.g., Lerner, Taylor, Gonzalez, & Stayn, 2002).
The Chronic Happiness Level
Our primary focus in this article is on a person’s characteristic level of happiness during
a particular period in his or her life, which we term the chronic happiness level. We define
happiness this way because we wish to identify a quantity that is more enduring than momentary
or daily happiness, but that is also somewhat malleable over time, and thus amenable to
meaningful pursuit. By this definition, while it is possible to alter one’s chronic happiness level,
it is much more difficult to do so than to alter one’s happiness level at a particular moment or on
a particular day. Operationally, one might define a person’s chronic happiness level in terms of
his or her retrospective summary judgments regarding his or her mood and satisfaction during
some recent period (such as the last 2, 6, or 12 months), or as the average of momentary
judgments of mood and satisfaction made at several times during the selected period. It is worth
adding, however, that people may vary in their “hedonic profiles,” such that two individuals with
similar chronic happiness levels might differ in their relative levels of contentment with life
versus their relative frequency of experiencing positive and negative mood states.
Determinants of the Chronic Happiness Level
We will focus on three primary types of factors that we believe causally affect the
chronic happiness level – namely, the set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity. We
focus on these three factors because they have historically received the majority of attention in
the well-being literature, providing a substantial research base. We also focus on this three-
factor distinction because it allows us to address several important issues and paradoxes, such as
the question of whether it is even possible to “become happier” given strong genetic influences
on happiness, the question of why past well-being research has found such weak associations
between demographic/circumstantial variables and happiness, and the question of how a person
might appropriately take action to “pursue” happiness.
Figure 1 provides an illustration of the approximate percentage of the variance that each
of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research. As
can be seen in the pie chart, existing evidence suggests that genetics account for approximately
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 12
50% of the population variation (Braungart et al., 1992; Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Tellegen et
al., 1988), and circumstances account for approximately 10% (Argyle, 1999; Diener et al., 1999).
This leaves as much as 40% of the variance for intentional activity, supporting our proposal that
volitional efforts offers a promising possible route to longitudinal increases in happiness. In
other words, changing one’s intentional activities may provide a happiness-boosting potential
that is at least as large, and likely much larger, than changing one’s circumstances.
Below we provide a definition for each factor, briefly consider whether and how
changing that factor can lead to change in peoples’ chronic well-being, and discuss whether such
changes may be sustainable over the long-term – that is, whether the forces of hedonic
adaptation can be counteracted by that factor.
The Happiness Set Point
We assume that an individual’s chronic happiness level is in part determined by her set
point, which is defined as the central or expected value within the person’s set range. The
happiness set point is genetically determined and is assumed to be fixed, stable over time, and
immune to influence or control. Consistent with this assumption, twin studies (Lykken &
Tellegen, 1996; Tellegen et al., 1988), long-term panel studies (Headey & Wearing, 1989), and
studies of the effects of life events on well-being (Brickman et al., 1978) all indicate substantial
long-term stability in happiness. For example, Lykken and Tellegen (1996) assessed well-being
in twins at age 20 and then again at age 30. The test-retest correlation was a considerable .50.
Even more important, the cross-twin, cross-time correlation for the happiness of monozygotic
(MZ) twins was .40 (or, 80% of the test-retest correlation), suggesting that the heritability of the
“stable” component of happiness is approximately .80. In contrast, the cross-twin, cross-time
correlation for the dizygotic (DZ) twins was close to zero (.07). Other studies, although differing
in their estimates of heritability, have consistently shown that MZ twins have considerably more
similar patterns of happiness change than do DZ twins, providing converging support that the
variance in adult happiness is in large part determined genetically.
The set point likely reflects relatively immutable intrapersonal, temperamental, and
affective personality traits, such as extraversion, arousability, and negative affectivity, that are
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 13
rooted in neurobiology (e.g., Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999; Davidson, 1999; Depue & Collins,
1999; Gray, 1990; Kagan, 2003; Robinson, Emde, & Corley, 2001), are highly heritable
(Tellegen et al., 1988), and change little over the lifespan (McCrae & Costa, 1990). For
example, Kagan has followed children from age 4 months to age 11, showing that sociability in
11-year olds can be traced to a particular type of infant temperament (called “low-reactive”),
which appears to involve a distinct neurochemical profile. Other writers, including Gray and
Depue, have also compiled persuasive evidence for the neurobiological underpinnings of
personality. This rapidly growing body of research supports the set point theory of personality
Implications of the Set Point for Sustainable Increases in Chronic Happiness
The above analysis implies that one’s chronic happiness during a particular life-period
can be increased, but not by changing one’s set point, because by definition it is constant. In
other words, although it is possible that future scientists will learn how to alter peoples’ basic
temperaments and dispositions, at present it appears that focusing on the set point is not a fruitful
avenue for happiness increase. Again, however, one can posit that non-genetic factors also
influence a person’s chronic happiness level, helping to determine whether that person falls in
the lower or upper portion of his potential range at a particular time. The remaining variables in
the model are designed to represent these other factors.
This category consists of happiness-relevant circumstantial factors – that is, the
incidental but relatively stable facts of an individual’s life. Happiness-relevant circumstances
may include the national, geographical, and cultural region in which a person resides, and also
demographic factors such as age, gender, and ethnicity (see Diener et al., 1999, for a review).
Circumstantial factors also include the individual’s personal history – that is, life events that can
affect one’s happiness, such as having experienced a childhood trauma, an automobile accident,
or winning a prestigious award. Finally, circumstantial factors include life status variables such
as marital status, occupational status, job security, income, health, and religious affiliations.
Again, prior cross-sectional research has linked all of the above circumstantial factors to
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 14
subjective well-being (Diener et al., 1999). For example, empirical evidence shows that people
who are paid more are relatively happier (e.g., Diener, Sandvik, Seidlitz, & Diener, 1993) and
that the middle class is somewhat happier than the working class (e.g., Warr & Payne, 1982).
Married people are happier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed (e.g., Mastekaasa,
1994), even in cultures as diverse as Belarus and Spain (Diener, Gohm, Suh, & Oishi, 2000).
Findings also reveal that religiously committed people are relatively more likely to rate
themselves as “very happy” (Gallup, 1984) and that, not surprisingly, healthy people, especially
older ones, declare themselves to be slightly happier than sick people (e.g., Okun et al., 1984).
However, as suggested above, all circumstances combined account for only 8% to 15%
of the variance in happiness levels (Argyle, 1999; Diener et al., 1999). These relatively weak
associations have been deemed surprising and paradoxical, given well-being researchers’ initial
expectations that circumstantial factors such as income and physical health would be strongly
related to happiness (Diener et al., 1999). We believe that these counter intuitively small effects
can be largely accounted for by hedonic adaptation, and the fact that people adapt rapidly to new
circumstances and life events. This appears to be the case because adaptation – whether it is
sensory (e.g., to a foul odor or a heavy weight; Brown, 1953), physiological (e.g., to very hot or
cold temperatures; Dar, Ariely, & Frank, 1995), or hedonic (e.g., to a salary raise; Brickman et
al., 1978; Parducci, 1995) – occurs in response to stimuli that are constant or repeated. By
definition, constancy is a feature of most circumstantial changes.
Implications of Circumstances for Sustainable Increases in Chronic Happiness
Of the different types of circumstances, life status variables in particular seem to offer
some potential for increasing chronic happiness, as individuals often have considerable control
over them. For example, a college football player may sign a lucrative NFL contract, a middle-
aged divorcee may get remarried, or a retired couple may move to Florida to a condominium
with a view, all becoming happier as a result. Will such new happiness last, however? Perhaps
not, because as mentioned above, hedonic adaptation tends to shuttle people back to their starting
point following any positive circumstantial change. For example, Headey and Wearing (1989)
found in their 4-wave panel study that positive and negative events (e.g., “made lots of new
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 15
friends,” “got married,” “experienced serious problems with children,” or “became
unemployed”) influenced life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect as would be
expected, but that people kept returning to their original baselines. And, Schkade and Kahneman
(1998) revealed that although “living in California” is a seductive notion for many, it does not
actually make people any happier in the long run. Furthermore, Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and
Diener (2003) showed that for most people, the life satisfaction benefits derived from getting
married tended to fade over the years. Thus, while one may gain a temporary “boost” by moving
to a new region, increasing one’s income level, or changing one’s appearance, such boosts will
probably not last, because people tend to adapt to constant circumstances. Other reasons why
circumstantial changes may prove ineffectual for permanently increasing happiness include the
fact that circumstantial changes can be costly (e.g., in money, resources, and time), and in many
cases impractical or even impossible. Also, once a realistic “ceiling” of positive circumstances
is reached, it may be difficult to improve matters further.
In short, the data suggest that changes in circumstances have limited potential for
producing sustainable changes in chronic happiness. Although this strategy may work in the
short term, it probably will not work in the long term. Of course, if a person has not achieved
basic subsistence and security, then it is logical for him to attend to these circumstances and
basic needs first, before focusing on maximizing his happiness. However, we assume that, at
best, satisfying basic needs can only get a person up to her set point, and not beyond.
Now we turn to the third and arguably most promising means of altering one’s happiness
level – intentional activity. This is a very broad category that includes the wide variety of things
that people do and think in their daily lives. Obviously, humans are very active creatures, with
innumerable behaviors, projects and concerns to which they devote energy. By “intentional,” we
mean discrete actions or practices that people can choose to do (although the choice to initiate
the activity may have become habitual, as will be discussed in a later section). We also assume
that intentional activities take some degree of effort to enact. That is, the person has to try to do
the activity – it does not happen by itself. Indeed, this point touches on one of the critical
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 16
distinctions between the category of activity and the category of life circumstances – that is,
circumstances happen to people, and activities are ways that people act on their circumstances.
There is good reason to believe that intentional activity can influence well-being. For
example, some types of behavioral activity, such as exercising regularly or trying to be kind to
others, are associated with well-being (e.g., Keltner & Bonanno, 1997; Magen & Aharoni, 1991),
as are some types of cognitive activity (such as reframing situations in a more positive light or
pausing to count one’s blessings; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; King, 2001; Seligman, 1991),
as are some kinds of volitional activity (such as striving for important personal goals, Sheldon &
Houser-Marko, 2001, or devoting effort to meaningful causes, Snyder & Omoto, 2001).
Notably, it is impossible to fully separate behavioral, cognitive, and volitional activity; still, we
believe the distinction is useful and we will continue to employ it throughout the article.
Implications of Intentional Activity for Sustainable Increases in Chronic Happiness
Again, it appears that increasing one’s set point and changing one’s life circumstances
are not fruitful avenues for sustainable increases in chronic happiness. What, if anything, can
provide such an avenue? Below, we argue that intentional behavioral, cognitive, and/or
volitional activity offers the best potential route. Some work has already investigated the impact
of adopting new behaviors on longitudinal well-being, showing, for example, that faithfully
engaging in a new exercise program positively boosts peoples’ mood and vitality, and can even
maintain the boosts for as long as 6 months (e.g., Ransford & Palisi, 1996; Stewart et al., 1997).
Although little work has directly investigated the longitudinal effects of changing one’s
cognitive attitudes and practices on enhanced well-being, the general success of cognitive-
behavioral therapy in reducing suffering (Gloaguen et al., 1998), and recent work indicating
positive effects of prompting people to practice positive psychological “virtues” such as
gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), hope (Snyder, Ilardi, Michael, & Cheavens, 2000),
and forgiveness (McCullough et al., 2000) suggest that cognitive activity offers many excellent
possibilities for happiness interventions (Fordyce, 1983).
Turning to the third type of intentional activity, recent longitudinal studies have focused
specifically on volitional activity as a producer of enhanced well-being (see Sheldon, 2002, for a
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 17
review). In such studies, students are typically asked to pursue self-generated personal goals
over the course of a semester. High levels of goal progress or attainment consistently predict
increased well-being (i.e., higher positive affect and life satisfaction, and lower negative mood)
from the beginning to the end of the semester, whereas low levels of progress predict reduced
well-being (Brunstein, 1993; Sheldon, 2002). Specifically, Sheldon’s longitudinal research in
this area (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995, 1998) has shown that well-
being increases are most likely when people choose and attain self-concordant goals – that is,
goals that “fit” the person (see below). This work has also highlighted one potential mediator
from successful volitional activity to enhanced well-being – namely, accumulations of positive
daily experiences along the way. The question of what other proximal factors may mediate
changes in chronic happiness will be addressed in more detail in a later section of this article.
Notably, these studies do not extend beyond a single span of time. Thus, they do not
directly address the crucial question raised by the current article – that is, whether gains in well-
being last. Although Headey and Wearing’s important (1989) work suggests that gains in
happiness do not last, notably, their study focused only on life events (“circumstances,” in our
model), and did not take intentional activity into direct account.
Recently, Sheldon and Houser-Marko (2001) addressed the question of sustainability by
examining the effects of goal attainment on emotional well-being over two consecutive
semesters. Consistent with earlier studies, they found that students who attained their personal
goals during the first semester of the freshman year experienced enhanced adjustment and
emotional well-being at the end of that semester. More important, they found that students could
maintain their enhanced level of well-being, but only if they continued to do well at their goals
during the second semester. In contrast, students who did well in the first semester but not in the
second semester tended to regress back to their original well-being levels. This study offers
direct support for our assumption that happiness can be enhanced and then maintained at the new
level, especially when volitional activity is effectively pursued over long periods of time.
Further supporting this conclusion, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) recently re-surveyed these
participants three years after the original study, and found that initially high-performing students
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 18
had maintained their earlier gains in emotional well-being throughout their college career.
Hedonic adaptation. But what about adaptation? Is it not the case that even the most
successful striver adapts to his or her happy situation eventually? More generally, don’t people
ultimately adapt to the positive effects of any activity in which they engage, whether it be
behavioral, cognitive, or volitional, so that the activity loses its potency over time?
Although hedonic adaptation undoubtedly constrains the happiness-inducing effects of
intentional activities, just as it does for circumstances, this adaptation effect appears to be
weaker in the case of activity, as shown by recent data. For example, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky
(2004) recently conducted several short-term longitudinal studies in which participants’ well-
being (positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction) was measured at Time 1, and positive
circumstantial and activity-based life changes were measured at Time 2. Well-being was then
measured twice more, at Times 3 and 4. These investigators found consistent support for a path
model, displayed in Figure 2, in which both positive circumstantial change and positive activity
change predicted enhanced life satisfaction and positive affect at Time 3, but only positive
activity change predicted maintained happiness gains at Time 4, with positive circumstantial
change dropping out of the model. In other words, consistent with the present model, only
activity-based well-being change lasted, whereas circumstance-based happiness change did not.
In a separate study, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) randomly assigned participants to
report on either activity-based positive changes or circumstantially-based positive changes in
their lives. Relative to those in the circumstantial-change group, those in the activity-change
group reported a weaker sense of “having gotten used to the change, such that it doesn’t give the
same boost as before,” and gave stronger endorsement to the statement “the change is something
that varies over time, i.e., something that adds variety to my life.” These findings further support
the claim that activity changes are characterized by less hedonic adaptation than circumstantial
changes. Parenthetically, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky’s (2004) findings taken as a whole support
the validity of our distinction between circumstantial changes and activity changes. Although
the boundaries between these categories can be fuzzy, apparently, they are clear enough to
produce the predicted effects.
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 19
Specific Advantages of Intentional Activity
What are the sources of the sustainable happiness gains afforded by intentional activity?
We posit that activity-based change, unlike circumstance-based change, has several desirable
features that may help to combat adaptation.
Intentional activity is episodic. One feature of activities is that they are, by definition,
episodic and transient – after all, people cannot spend all of their time doing one thing. This in
itself suggests that individuals may adapt less readily to new activities, compared to new
circumstances. The episodic nature of activity also suggests that an additional way to maximize
the impact of an activity is to attend to the timing of that activity. For example, a person might
choose to “count her blessings” only after braving a difficult period, or only when she is
especially needful of a boost. Suppose instead that she counts the same blessings every day, in a
non-varying routine. This person may become bored with the routine and cease to extract
meaning from it. The length of time before re-engaging in a happiness-boosting activity is an
important part of its potency in the next application. By being mindful of the “refractory period”
(Kalat, 2001) after which a recently performed activity regains its full happiness-inducing
potential, individuals may maximize the benefits of the activity over time and avoid reducing or
eliminating the activity’s effectiveness through overuse. Thus, people should strive to discover
the optimal timing for each activity – that is, a frequency of engagement that allows that activity
to remain fresh, meaningful, and positive for a particular person.
Intentional activity can be varied. Another important parameter of behavioral, cognitive,
and volitional activities is that people can continually vary them, both in their foci, and in the
ways they engage in them. This may help to reduce adaptation to the activity, allowing it to
retain its potency (McAlister, 1982). Indeed, by definition, adaptation does not occur to stimuli
that are variable or changeable, but only to those that are constant or repeated (cf. Frederick &
Loewenstein, 1999). For example, a scientist may regularly ask new questions and become
involved in new projects. In the process, she often feels the joy of making fascinating new
discoveries, and thus may remain particularly happy (i.e., at the upper end of her potential range)
over a long period of time. If the person counting her blessings varies the domains of life in
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 20
which she counts them (i.e., in relationships, in work, in her health, or in her most recently
successful domain), then the strategy may remain “fresh” and meaningful and work indefinitely.
Supporting this notion, past research suggests that people tend to seek variety in their behavior
(McAlister, 1982; Ratner, Kahn, & Kahneman, 1999), perhaps because change – in both
thoughts and actions – is innately pleasurable and stimulating (Berlyne, 1970; Rolls et al., 1981).
Intentional activity can directly counteract adaptation. Yet another advantage of
intentional activity is that it can directly tackle the problem presented by adaptation. For
example, the cognitive practice of pausing to savor the good things in one’s life can directly
counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation to one’s constant circumstances, by drawing
attention to the features that produced the initial happiness boost, and helping to keep them from
being taken for granted. As another example, practiced meditators frequently report renewed
appreciation of the ordinary due to their intentional re-encounters with the world.
The fact that intentional activity can directly counteract adaptation and the hedonic
treadmill helps shed further light on the distinction between life circumstances and intentional
activities. Obviously, many personal characteristics are both. For example, “being married” or
“being a student” both denote demographic status, yet also reflect particular sorts of activities.
From our perspective, the crucial distinction with respect to well-being is whether or not one
exerts intentional effort with respect to the circumstantial category – that is, one acts upon the
circumstance (e.g., using intentional practices to keep the circumstance “fresh”). For example,
an individual can engage in a number of intentional activities with respect to the circumstantial
category “marriage”: A husband can have the goal of making his marriage work (a volitional
activity); he can make the effort to appreciate his wife’s positive qualities (an attitudinal
activity), and he can try to remember to bring her flowers (a behavioral activity). A person who
performs these activities would likely best counteract adaptation to this particular circumstance,
and derive the most benefit from it. In contrast, consider a person who is not intentionally
engaged in his marriage; for him, this demographic circumstance would essentially become a
background factor, to which adaptation is very likely.
For all of these reasons, intentional activity appears to offer the best prospects for
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 21
increasing and sustaining happiness. Of course, following through on new intentions, such as
the ubiquitous “New Year’s resolutions,” is not necessarily easy (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998).
Indeed, we assume that happiness-increasing strategies can be initiated and effectively pursued
only with concerted, consistent commitment and effort. Still, activity-based factors are, by
definition, under greater potential control by the individual than are genetic, demographic, and
most life status factors. In other words, if anything can do it, intentional activity can.
Implementing Happiness-Increasing Strategies
In this section, we briefly consider several important issues pertaining to how intentional
activity might be used for increasing happiness. In other words, having established that activity
can potentially sustainably elevate happiness, how might one put this potential to work? We
discuss these strategic issues in roughly chronological order, proceeding from the question of
how to choose a particular happiness-boosting activity, to the question of how such activity may
be initiated, to the question of how the activity can be maintained over time to produce a
sustained increase in the chronic level of happiness. In the process, we will discuss the issue of
person-strategy fit, the meaning and nature of effort, the definition and role of habits, and the
impact of short-term versus long-term considerations.
Choosing an Activity: The Role of Person-Activity Fit
Any one particular activity will not help every person become happier. People have
enduring strengths, interests, values, and inclinations, which undoubtedly predispose them to
benefit more from some strategies than others. For example, an extravert may benefit most from
an activity that brings her into regular contact with other people, and a person high in nurturance
motivation may benefit most from an activity that affords him opportunities to take care of
others. This general “matching” hypothesis (Harackiewicz & Sansone, 1991) is supported by
much recent work showing that the positive effects of goal-attainment on well-being are
moderated by goal-person fit (Brunstein et al., 1998; Diener & Fujita, 1995; Sheldon & Elliot,
1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1998). It is also supported by past well-being intervention research.
For example, in several studies that instructed participants to apply 14 different techniques to
increase their personal happiness, the particular techniques considered most effective for raising
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 22
happiness by participants varied greatly from one individual to another and appeared to be
determined by each participant’s needs and areas of specific weakness (Fordyce, 1977, 1983).
The fit of an activity with a person might be conceptualized in a variety of ways – for
example, with respect to individuals’ motive dispositions, basic needs, core values, signature
strengths, personal resources, hedonic profiles, or other individual difference characteristics.
There are also a variety of ways that fit might be operationalized – for example, in terms of self-
reported fit, in terms of consistency between implicit and explicit measures of activity-relevant
motives, or in terms of informant-rated person/activity fit. Another approach is to assume that
certain kinds of experiences are likely to be beneficial to anyone, because those experiences
reflect universal psychological needs. From this point of view, any activity that provides certain
experiences, such as those involving belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), self-efficacy
(Bandura, 1997), or autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2000), might be assumed to “fit” the person, a
The Role of Effort
Initiating an activity. We assume that engaging in an activity requires at least two
different kinds of effort – first, the effort required to initiate the activity, and second, the effort
required to actually carry out and maintain the activity. This distinction is necessary because it
is clear that many activities have definite positive effects, if the person can only get started doing
them. For example, exercising in the morning, making time to work on at least one important
project during the day, or pausing to count one’s blessings at the end of the day can have
significant benefits – but only if the person can “get over the hurdle” of remembering to do them
and overcoming any obstacles to initiating them. Obviously, those who do not implement their
activity intentions stand a worse chance of benefiting from them than those who do! We assume
that this kind of self-regulatory effort requires considerable self-discipline and willpower.
Furthermore, such effort may constitute a limited resource, which must be marshaled carefully –
in Muraven and Baumeister’s (2000) terms, self-regulatory will is like a “muscle,” which has a
limited capacity in a given unit of time, and must be used strategically in order to avoid fatigue.
If this analogy is accurate, then it seems logical that some people develop the muscle to a
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 23
greater extent than others, thus attaining a greater ability to “get started” on their intentions, thus
gaining greater happiness potential. Of course, some activities will appear intrinsically more
appealing, and will be easier to jumpstart – this is undoubtedly one advantage of selecting an
activity that fits one’s personality. For example, rather than running on a track, a fitness-seeking
wilderness-lover might instead choose to run on a trail through the woods, thereby feeling much
less initial resistance to beginning the activity. As another example, rather than learning
classical pieces, a jazz-loving piano student might instead choose to work on jazz standards,
enhancing the intrinsic appeal of sitting down to practice.
Maintaining an activity. This brings us to the second type of effort. Obviously, if a
particular activity is to yield sustained happiness change, the person must keep performing the
activity over the long term. For many effective happiness-enhancing activities, this will not be
difficult, as the task will likely be inherently interesting or rewarding, and thus will be
“autotelic” in nature (Deci & Ryan, 2000) – that is, self-reinforcing and self-sustaining. This is
especially true to the extent that the person continually varies what he does. For example, by
shifting attention among several projects at work, by exploring new trails in the state park, or by
seeking out interesting new piano pieces, a person’s activities should remain intrinsically
enjoyable and conducive to many rewarding “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
What if the activity is not enjoyable, and thus difficult to maintain? In this case, stopping
the activity may not be problematic, as it likely is not working anyway. By emphasizing the
importance of enjoying one’s intentional activity, however, we do not mean to imply that people
should seek out only “fun” activities. Sometimes choosing to endure boring or even aversive
experiences in the short-term can have considerable positive effects on chronic happiness in the
long-term – for example, studying for an important exam in a tedious but required class may well
represent an excellent investment in one’s future chronic happiness, even though it may detract
from one’s momentary happiness. As another example, a naval officer candidate is paying a
short-term cost (boot camp) in order to receive a longer-term benefit (a career as an officer).
Notably, self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Sheldon, Joiner, & Williams,
2003) posits that the crucial factor in such cases is whether the person has internalized the non-
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 24
enjoyable activity – that is, whether he or she is able to find meaning and value-expression in it,
even if it is not pleasant to perform. From this perspective, the naval officer candidate would
pay a smaller short-term cost if he could undergo boot camp thinking “this is important and
valuable,” rather than thinking “this is unnecessary and stupid.” The question of when and how
to sacrifice short-term happiness in exchange for longer-term happiness is an important one, as is
the question of how to promote internalization of important happiness-relevant activities that are
not intrinsically enjoyable. These questions represent promising directions for future research.
The Role of Habitual Activity
If activities such as “looking on the bright side,” “making time for the things that matter,”
or “working on an important life goal” make a difference for happiness, then it seems it would be
a good idea to make a habit of doing them. However, on the surface, habits appear to present a
conundrum for our model. Doesn’t acquiring a habit mean that one has turned a formerly
conscious activity into an unconscious routine, which is practiced automatically and without
variation? If so, isn’t one especially likely to experience hedonic adaptation to that activity, such
that it loses its happiness-boosting potential?
We think not. However, to illustrate, we must first distinguish between the habit of
regularly initiating a potentially beneficial activity, and the habit of implementing it the same
way every time (the two types of effort, mentioned above). We assume that hedonic adaptation
only occurs with respect to particular experiences, and not with respect to the decisions that give
rise to those experiences. Thus, making a habit out of deciding to initiate an activity is not
problematic, but may instead help people to keep getting “over the hump.” For example, a
woman might make running an automatic part of her daily routine, such that she does not even
have to make the decision of whether or not to run each day, thus deriving considerable benefit.
What is potentially problematic is when people make a habit out of how they implement the
activity. When this happens, the flow of experiences produced by such a habit is likely to
remain relatively constant, and thus adaptation is likely to have the most pernicious effects. To
overcome this, as suggested above, people should mindfully attend to optimal timing and variety
in the ways they practice an activity. For example, the woman might want to vary the route, time
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 25
of day, and speed of her running. This will help forestall the effects of adaptation.
Extensions and Further Questions
Now that we have presented our basic conceptual model of sustainable changes in
happiness, we briefly consider a variety of additional issues that extend beyond this basic model.
Mediators of Happiness Increases
What are the key ingredients of particular activities that lead a person to a higher level of
well-being? Although this question is somewhat peripheral to our model, it merits brief
discussion. We assume that happiness increases come from at least two sources, which are
described, respectively, by bottom-up and top-down theories of well-being (Diener, 1994).
Bottom-up theories postulate that people make global well-being judgments in part with
reference to emotions associated with their recent experiences (Kahneman, 1999). If they can
recall a large number of recent affectively positive experiences, then they report being a very
happy person (see Sheldon & Elliot, 1999, for supporting data). Studies have found support for
this bottom-up perspective, by showing that accumulations of need-satisfying daily experiences
over time (such as competence, relatedness, and autonomy; Deci & Ryan, 2000) lead to
enhanced global well-being at the end of that time (Reis, Sheldon, Ryan, Gable, & Roscoe, 2000;
Sheldon, Ryan, & Reis, 1996). Furthermore, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2004) found, in their
comparison of the sustained effects of circumstantial changes and activity changes upon changes
in well-being, that the more enduring activity-based effects on happiness were mediated by the
greater feelings of competence and relatedness associated with activity changes during the
But what about when people say they are happy despite having had recent negative
emotional experiences? Although bottom-up theories cannot account for this, top-down theories
can. According to such models, well-being judgments are in part determined by global
attitudinal or meaning-based factors. Thus, a person who “suffers for a cause” might still feel
very happy because her suffering demonstrates her commitment to, and also perhaps moves her
closer to obtaining, an important life-goal. As another example, a man who has a bad day at
work might still report being very happy that night, because of a short but meaningful visit from
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 26
his grandchildren that evening that helped him to re-frame the day. Again, we believe that
intentional activity can lead to new well-being by both top-down and bottom-up routes – that is,
both via accumulations of small positive experiences and via a sense of global meaning and
Preliminary Data: Happiness Interventions
The model of sustainable happiness that we have proposed has clear implications for how
to design interventions for increasing happiness. Before describing these, we will first discuss
some of the few happiness intervention studies that have been conducted, to show their general
consistency with our approach. As noted earlier, Fordyce (1977, 1983) conducted several
happiness intervention studies in which he taught 14 happiness-relevant strategies to students as
part of their coursework. All of the strategies fit into one or more of the three categories of
activity outlined above – namely, behavioral (e.g., “spend more time socializing”), cognitive
(e.g., “become present-oriented”), and/or volitional (e.g., “get better organized and plan things
out”). Consistent with our conceptual model, Fordyce found that the strategies worked – that is,
a significant main effect of participation was found for the experimental conditions. Again,
intentional activity can successfully increase happiness. Also consistent with our model, he
found that some strategies worked better than others, and, additionally, that person-strategy fit
had a moderating effect on strategy effectiveness.
More recently, Sheldon and colleagues (2002) conducted an intervention study based on
participants’ personal goals. Early in the semester, they taught experimental participants a set of
four strategies for enhancing their experience and attainment of their personal goals: “own the
goal,” “make it fun,” “keep a balance,” and “remember the big picture.” Consistent with the
above-cited studies, goal-attainment predicted increases in well-being at the end of the semester.
Interestingly, there was no main effect of experimental condition upon increased well-being, or
upon goal-attainment. Instead, a significant interaction was observed, such that only those
whose goals “fit” their interests and values benefited from the intervention. In other words,
those with self-concordant goals who received the intervention evidenced the greatest goal-
attainment, and thus the greatest increase in well-being. In addition to demonstrating that
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 27
happiness-boosting interventions can work for at least some people, this finding provides further
support for our proposition that the fit of the activity to the person makes a difference.
Obviously, much future work remains to be done regarding happiness-increasing
interventions – in particular, research that explicitly manipulates the various factors in our
model. As a preliminary test, Lyubomirsky, Tkach, and Sheldon (2004) have recently conducted
two 6-week happiness-enhancing interventions based in behavioral and cognitive-attitudinal
change. Drawing on promising interventions grounded in the positive psychology tradition –
that is, those focused on building positive affect and personal strengths rather than on reducing
or coping with negative affect, pathology, or weakness – they used two diverse strategies (one
cognitive and one social-behavioral) to serve as initial existence proofs of our conceptual model.
To this end, experimental participants were prompted to perform kind acts or to pause and
“count their blessings.”
The strategy of committing acts of kindness was expected to boost temporary moods and
long-lasting well-being, based on prior theory and research. For example, individuals who report a
greater interest in helping others, an inclination to act in a prosocial manner, or intentions to
perform altruistic or courteous behaviors are more likely to rate themselves as dispositionally
happy (see Lyubomirsky, King, et al., 2004, for a review). We assume that acts of kindness and
generosity can boost happiness in a variety of ways. Such acts may foster a charitable perception
of others and one’s community, an increased sense of cooperation and interdependence, and an
awareness of one’s good fortune. In addition, people who commit acts of kindness may begin to
view themselves as altruistic people, as well as to feel more confident, efficacious, in control, and
optimistic about their ability to help. Furthermore, acts of generosity can inspire greater liking by
others, as well as appreciation, gratitude, and prosocial reciprocity (Trivers, 1971), all of which are
valuable in times of stress and need. Finally, kind behaviors may help satisfy a basic human need
for relatedness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), thereby contributing to increased happiness.
Thus, in their first intervention, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues (2004) asked students to
perform five acts of kindness per week over the course of 6 weeks – either all five acts in one
day or five acts spread over the week. Such acts were described as behaviors that benefit other
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 28
people or make others happy, usually at some cost to oneself (e.g., donating blood, helping a
friend with a paper, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank-you note to a former
professor). A no-treatment control group simply completed measures of well-being immediately
before the intervention and immediately after. The results, displayed in the top panel of Figure
3, provided preliminary evidence that a short-term happiness-enhancing activity can increase
well-being. Furthermore, supporting our model’s predictions, we found that optimal timing was
critical. While control participants experienced a reduction in happiness over the course of the
6-week period, those who committed acts of kindness experienced a significant increase in well-
being, but this increase was only evident for participants who showed their weekly generosity all
in one single day. Because many of the kind acts that students performed were small ones,
spreading them over the course of a week might have diminished their salience and power, or
made them less distinguishable from participants’ habitual kind behavior.
The second intervention tested a cognitive happiness-increasing activity. Recently,
Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that practicing grateful thinking on a regular basis can
enhance concurrent well-being. Gratitude promotes the savoring of positive life experiences and
situations, so that the maximum satisfaction and enjoyment is distilled from one’s circumstances.
As noted earlier, this practice may directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation, by
helping people extract as much appreciation from the good things in their lives as possible. In
addition, the ability to appreciate one’s life circumstances may also be an adaptive coping
strategy by which people positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences, bolster
coping resources, and strengthen social relationships. Finally, the practice of gratitude appears
to be incompatible with negative emotions, and thus may reduce feelings of envy, anger, or
Thus, in the second 6-week intervention, students were instructed to contemplate “the
things for which they are grateful” either once a week or three times a week. Examples of
“blessings” listed by students included “a healthy body,” “my mom,” and “AOL instant
messenger.” Control participants only completed the happiness assessments. The results again
suggested that short-term increases in happiness are possible and, furthermore, that optimal
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 29
timing is important. In sum, students who regularly expressed gratitude showed increases in
well-being over the course of the study, relative to controls, but those increases were only
observed for those students who performed the activity only once a week (see Figure 3, bottom
panel). Perhaps counting one’s blessings several times a week led people to become bored with
the practice, finding it less fresh and meaningful over time.
Although the results of these two interventions are encouraging, they notably did not test
the sustainability of the well-being increases for the experimental groups (i.e., “kindness” and
“blessings”), and did not examine the effects of key moderators of activity effects. In the future,
in addition to assessing the efficacy of different activities for producing sustainable increases in
well-being, we are also investigating the effects of such potential moderators as fit, effectiveness,
timing, variety, cultural membership, social support, and the habits associated with the activity.
What are the most general recommendations for increasing happiness suggested by our
model? Simply, that happiness seekers might be advised to find new activities to become
engaged in, preferably activities that fit their values and interests. They should make a habit out
of initiating the activity, while at the same time varying their focus and timing in the way they
implement the activity. People might be advised to avoid basing their happiness on the
acquisition of particular circumstances or objects (e.g., buy a luxury car, or move to California),
because they will tend to habituate to such stable factors. Again, however, one can deter, or at
least delay, such adaptation to positive circumstantial changes, by engaging in intentional effort
and activity with respect to them. That is, if one can remember to appreciate or actively engage
with the object or circumstance (i.e., pause to savor the new Mercedes, or take advantage of the
California weather), then stable objects and circumstances may not be stable after all, from a
phenomenological perspective. Thus, it remains the case that only life changes involving
intentional activity can be expected to lead to sustainable changes in well-being.
If it is meaningful and important to pursue happiness, then it is crucial to find out how it
may be accomplished. To what extent, and how, can people succeed in making themselves
happier? In this article, we have attempted to integrate what is known about happiness change,
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 30
especially longitudinal variations in well-being, into a single summary model. The model
encompasses a wide variety of findings, and suggests a number of new directions for research.
More than two centuries have passed since the “pursuit of happiness” was proclaimed as a
divinely ordained human right. We believe it is finally time for the issue of sustainable well-
being to be given the scientific attention that it deserves.
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 31
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Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 43
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside.
Kennon M. Sheldon, Department of Psychology, University of Missouri, Columbia. David
Schkade, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin.
This work was supported in part by grants from the Positive Psychology Network. We
are grateful to Linda Houser-Marko, Kathleen Jamir, and Chris Tkach for conducting library
research and to Shelley Taylor, David Sherman, and the other members of Psychology 421 for
valuable comments on an earlier draft.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sonja Lyubomirsky,
Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521; e-mail:
email@example.com or to Kennon M. Sheldon, Department of Psychological Sciences, 112
McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211; e-mail:
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 44
Figure 1. Three primary factors influencing the chronic happiness level.
Figure 2. Longitudinal path model predicting maintained changes in well-being from positive
circumstantial changes and positive activity changes.
Figure 3. Changes in well-being over the course of two 6-week interventions – performing acts
of kindness (top panel) and counting one’s blessings (bottom panel).
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 45
What Determines Happiness?
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 46
Time 2 Positive
Time 2 Positive
Architecture of Sustainable Happiness 47