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Dr. Happiness and the Indiana Jones of positive psychology

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

“Dr. Happiness” is regarded as the world’s leading psychological researcher of human happiness. He’s also been called the “Jedi Master of Happiness.” His real name is Ed Diener, and he’s a professor at the University of Illinois. I said a little more about him when I talked about his Life Satisfaction Scale.

He’s written a book for the general public together with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, a psychologist known for his ability to collect hard-to-get data. He studies subjective well-being in far flung places like Greenland, India, Israel, Spain, and Kenya, working with remote groups of people traditionally overlooked by researchers. Because of this he’s also acquired a nickname, the “Indiana Jones of positive psychology.”

Their book came out just a few days ago, but it’s already gotten quite a bit of attention, including reviews. There’s even one on

It’s called Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Psychological wealth is “your true net worth, and includes your attitudes toward life, social support, spiritual development, material resources, health, and the activities in which you engage.”

The book is being widely praised:

“This is the most authoritative and informative book about happiness ever written. That’s not surprising, given that its authors are the world’s leading happiness researcher and his psychologist-son, whose vocation is coaching people toward happier lives.” -David G. Myers, Hope College, author, The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy

“A great gift from the leading professional scientist of happiness in the world and his son, the ‘Indiana Jones’ of positive psychology.” -Martin E. P. Seligman, University of Pennsylvania and author, Authentic Happiness

“Want the key to happiness and success in life, choose the right advisor. On the subject of happiness, students, researchers, businesses, and governments have been turning to Ed Diener. Now, in this powerful, ground-breaking book, we have the opportunity to receive the coveted advice of Dr. Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener. This book is a must read if you want a practical, enjoyable, and uplifting science-based guide to achieving real psychological wealth.” -David J. Pollay, President, The Momentum Project, Syndicated Columnist

“The collaboration between the foremost authority on happiness research and the “Indiana Jones” of psychology makes for a great mix of interesting examples and solid research. I have never seen a book that does such a good job offering useful practical advice while basing this advice on completely sound empirical research.” -Richard E. Lucas, Michigan State University

“This is a happiness book by the world authority, the pre-eminent scholar in the field along with an in-the-trenches coach who teaches and adapts this material every day for practical use with his clients. These folks know happiness from the inside out. The authors separate the wheat from the chaff, and serve up a meal replete with tasty morsels of practical advice on how to live. A joy to read!” -Michael B. Frisch, Baylor University, author, Quality of Life Therapy

In the phone interview I mentioned in my last post (where I mostly talked about professor Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book on happiness), Ed Diener talked about some of the same things that are in his book.

True or False:

1. I’d be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds, or moved to a new house.

2. Happiness is genetic. You can’t change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.

3. Success brings happiness.

Well, it’s clear that environmental factors can have an affect on how tall you are. (Have our genes suddenly become almost 10% different from our – shorter – grandparents’ generation?) And there is a genetic component to happiness. Also, money can make some difference, especially at levels of poverty where basic needs aren’t met. But for the rest of us money doesn’t have nearly the impact that people seem to assume. And reaching the other goals where you get something turns out not to make us anywhere as happy as we expect.

Basically, all 3 are false.

Popular book by top happiness researcher

So what does make a real difference?

First and foremost seems to be relationships. Close, supportive social relationships. We need people who we care about.

Second is attitudinal: being grateful, attending to good things/experiences and savoring them (vs. ruminating on the negative). Positive attitudes toward life in general.

Happiness is a process, not a destination.

Here’s the book: Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. I’ll be talking more about its contents in the future.

Sonja Lyubomirsky and the How of Happiness

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

“Dr. Happiness” Ed Diener and Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky are two of the leading researchers on happiness. A funny thing happened the day after I wrote my last post, where I introduced Dr. Diener and talked about his Life Satisfaction Scale. I got an email from Dr. Ben Dean (who I’ll talk about in a minute) saying Dr. Diener “is considered to be the world’s leading authority on research on happiness” and inviting me to a conference-call interview of Dr. Diener and Dr. Lyubomirsky that night.

Both Ed Diener and Sonja Lyubomirsky have written popular books about happiness. Sonja’s book has been out for awhile now. I just did a search for “happiness” in the “books” section of, and it came up second. It’s called: The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. It’s a how-to book. In the Foreword, she says “To my knowledge, this is the first how-to-become-happier book authored by someone who has actually conducted research revealing how people can achieve a greater sense of happiness in their lives.

She’s certainly qualified to talk about happiness: she was awarded a Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2002, she’s an associate editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology, and she and Ken Sheldon have a 5-year million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.

Just looking at the table of contents gives you an idea how much she has to offer:

Part One: How to Attain Real and Lasting Happiness

1. Is It Possible to Become Happier?

2. How Happy Are You and Why?

3. How to Find Happiness Activities That Fit Your Interests, Your Values, and Your Needs

Part Two: Happiness Activities

Foreword to Part Two: Before You Begin

4. Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking

5. Investing in Social Connections

6. Managing Stress, Hardship, and Trauma

7. Living in the Present

8. Happiness Activity No.10: Committing to Your Goals

9. Taking Care of Your Body and Your Soul

Part Three: Secrets to Abiding Happiness

10. The Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness

The Promise of Abiding Happiness: An Afterword

Postscript: If You Are Depressed

Appendix: Additional Happiness Activities That May Fit

Dr. Lyubomirsky has found that happy people tend to perceive and interpret the world in ways that reinforce their happiness, and unhappy people do the reverse. Happy people respond in a more positive and adaptive way, while unhappy people tend to dwell or “ruminate” on negative or ambiguous events, draining cognitive resources and creating negative consequences.

She and her colleagues are investigating ways that happiness can be reliably and durably increased. They believe it can be done through intentional activities, but that these require “daily and concerted effort and commitment.” They are testing the effectiveness of gratitude exercises, “self-regulatory” and positive thinking about oneself (such as reflecting, writing, and talking about one’s happiest and unhappiest life events, or about one’s goals for the future), and practicing acts of kindness and altruism.

Popular how-to book on happiness by leading researcher

She talked about some of these things in the interview, and deals with how to apply some of them in practical ways in her book.

I want to talk about Ed Diener’s new book too, a bit more about the interview, and about Ben Dean’s work. But I think I’m going to have to break this up into several posts. In the meantime, take a look at Sonja’s book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Gratitude is something that psychologists have started studying in a scientific way recently, thousands of years after its importance was recognized by philosophers, religious thinkers, and spiritual teachers. It turns out gratitude is strongly associated with quite a few aspects of psychological and physical well-being. According to research, grateful people have more positive emotion, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, pleasant feelings, empathy, generosity, and less depression and stress. But how do psychology researchers know that’s not just because being a happy person causes gratitude? Or because having a good life causes both happiness and gratitude?

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others”


One way to find out is by doing an experiment. You get a group of people to do a “gratitude intervention” (keeping a gratitude journal or gratitude lists, or some other activity that encourages gratitude) and see how it affects other factors. Even better if you have another group as a comparison where everybody is doing some similar activity that doesn’t necessarily encourage gratitude.

Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough are two leading researchers on this topic. Here are some of their results:

In one experiment, the group of people who kept weekly gratitude journals had significantly better results on a range of psychological and physical well-being measures than the people in either of two comparison groups. The gratitude journal people exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than the other two groups (who recorded hassles in one group or neutral life events in the other).

Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal, and health-based) over a two-month period compared to participants in the other experimental groups.

In another study using daily self-guided exercises with young adults, the participants in the gratitude intervention group reported higher levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy than the other two groups (who focused on hassles, or on how they thought they were better off than others). Also, the participants in the gratitude intervention group were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to someone than those in the other two comparison groups.

In a third study, this time of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in better sleep duration and sleep quality, greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, and more optimistic ratings of one’s life, relative to a comparison group.

The most robust effect across all three studies was the impact on people’s positive moods.

All the participants were randomly assigned to groups. So the gratitude interventions led to the improvements in psychological and physical well-being, not the other way around.

Martin Seligman, father of the modern “positive psychology” movement, recommends trying out the intervention, particularly for those who score in the lower half on the McCullough & Emmons “Gratitude Survey” or Ed Diener’s “Satisfaction with Life Scale.” In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes it as follows:

Set aside five free minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably right before brushing your teeth for bed. Prepare a pad with one page for each of the next fourteen days. The first night, take the Satisfaction with Life Scale (page 63) and the General Happiness Scale (page 46) once again and score them. Then think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life you are grateful or thankful for. Common examples include “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “God for giving me determination,” “wonderful parents,” “robust good health,” and “the Rolling Stones” (or some other artistic inspiration). Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General Happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare your scores to the first night’s scores. If this worked for you, incorporate it into your nightly routine.

So here’s our special offer: Take our free two-week trial according to the description immediately above. If you don’t feel more alert, more enthusiastic, more determined, more attentive, more energetic, more optimistic, more happiness, and more satisfied with life; and if you’re not more helpful and supportive; we’ll give you double your money back!


Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 75. Hardcover: ISBN 0-7432-2297-0; Paperback (2004): ISBN 0-7432-2298-9.