Who's Happier - Renter or Owner? Uncovering the Myths of Happiness


Let’s start with a true-false test. I’ll tell you a supposed fact about happiness, and you decide whether you think it’s true or false.

1. Unexpected pleasures are the most rewarding. True or false?

2. Daily hassles impact our well-being more than major life events. True or false?

3. When it comes to sex, women require more novelty than men. True or false?

4. A smoking habit is not a bigger risk factor for heart disease as a troubled marriage. True or false?

5. Renters are happier than homeowners. True or false?

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, all 5 statements are true. Yup, renters are happier and women want more novelty in sex than men. All based in science.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at
the University of California, Riverside, is the author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t; What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. You can learn more at drsonja.net.

Terrence McNally: Could you talk a bit about your path to the work you find yourself doing today?

Sonia Lyubomirsky: That’s a good question. I came to the US from Russia when I was ten years old. One of the first things I noticed is this huge cultural difference in happiness and the expression of happiness. People in Russia all look gloomy and they don’t talk to each other on the street. Here people smile; when they walk on the street, they say hi to you even if they don’t know you. I remember that as kind of formative insight.

I went to graduate school at Stanford, and on the very first day I met with my adviser, Lee Ross, one of the world’s experts on conflict and negotiation. So nothing to do with happiness. But for some reason we started talking about happiness. “What is happiness?” and “Why are some people happier than others?” We took a walk around the campus and that’s how it all began.

Back then the study of happiness was not considered a scientific topic. Only one person in the whole world was studying happiness: Ed Deener. That was 20 or so years ago. Things have really changed. Now, neuroscientists are studying well-being, and economists. Lots of people are talking about it.

McNally: So you got to Stanford graduate school not knowing that’s what you were going to focus on?

Lyubomirsky: That’s right…and then it began. We didn’t really know anything about happiness, so we started interviewing people to see the differences between happy and unhappy people. I felt insecure because it was such a novel topic of research.

McNally: I remember interviewing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is responsible for the study of flow. Based on his experiences in Hungary during WWII, he told me wanted to find a way to work in psychology to help people be happier. But he had to focus on creativity because in the 50’s that was as close as he could get.

Lyubomirsky: Even 20 or 30 years ago, Deener called it “subjective well-being” to make it sound more scientific.

McNally: Back then you didn’t go to school, you didn’t get grants, you certainly didn’t get tenure looking at things like happiness. Today, we’re used to seeing articles and quizzes in magazines about happiness; the self-help industry abounds with motivational speakers and gurus talking about it, but your work is rooted in science. How do you study happiness?

Lyubomirsky: There’s a lot of wisdom in the self-help domain, but I also think that there’s a special kind of wisdom that you can get from studying something systematically. If you have an illness, and you want to get treatment or have surgery or go on a drug, don’t you want to make sure that treatment or drug or surgery has been tested to make sure that it’s effective? I say the same thing about happiness. If you want to be a happier person, how do you go about it? I think it’s important not only listen to your grandmother or a motivational speaker or a clinician, but to look at what research has shown. In my research I do what are called “happiness interventions” - basically experiments to see what makes people happier and how and why. Instead of testing a new treatment, I’m testing a happiness strategy.

McNally: How much does neuroscience play a part in what you do or in the broader field?

Lyubomirsky: It doesn’t play a part in what I do at all because I’m not a neuroscientist. But certainly, happiness and positive emotions have become more of a topic in neuroscience. For example, scientists are doing MRI’s of people’s brains while these subjects are looking at something rewarding on a screen versus something that’s punishing, to see what areas of the brain light up. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin is famous for doing research looking at activity in the brain. He finds that people who are happier have an asymmetry in the frontal cortex in the front part of the brain - the left side of the frontal part of the brain has more activity versus the right side. Such research in the field of neuroscience is not so relevant to what I do because I’m not trained in that field.

McNally: Happiness seems such an intangible kind of thing, how do you quantify it?

Lyubomirsky: Just because it’s intangible, doesn’t mean we can’t measure it. Happiness is definitely very subjective, only you know how happy you really are. We can ask your spouse or we can measure how often you smile. Researchers look at people’s emails or texts or saved book profiles to see how many positive words they use. Those can be indicators of happiness, but they’re not perfect indicators, because someone could put on a show but not be truly happy. We ask people directly, “How happy are you?”

There are well-validated measures or scales, both valid and reliable. I ask people: How happy are you overall? On a seven-point scale, how happy are you relative to your peers? How satisfied are you with your life? How often do you experience positive and negative emotions? This is sort of the gold standard that researchers use in measuring happiness.

McNally: You pointed out that if you looked at their Facebook shares and so on, they might be putting on a show. Couldn’t the same thing apply to their self-evaluation in your questioning?

Lyubomirsky: That is certainly possible. This is called “social desirability bias”. It is socially desirable in our culture to show happiness, and so people may be likely to lie a little bit. But there are various ways you can go around that. We can collect different kinds of measures. We can ask you how happy you are, and ask your friends how happy they think you are, and look at your text messages to see if you use a lot of positive words. We find that generally people are fairly honest, especially if we give an online questionnaire. You don’t really have any reason to lie. We make it anonymous to reduce any reason for this so-called desirability bias to play itself out.

McNally: Can you describe a couple of your experiments, to give an idea of what you actually do to arrive at your conclusions?

Lyubomirsky: I’ve been studying whether people who do acts of kindness on a regular basis become happier. We do studies, for example, where we ask people to do three acts of kindness that they don’t normally do, every Monday for the next six weeks. Something over and above what you usually do to help others. We measure their happiness before, during, and after. We also have a control group. We randomly assign people to do either acts of kindness of something neutral, and then we see what happens. We find that people who do acts of kindness on a regular basis, become happier while the control group does not become happier.

McNally: If I’m doing acts of kindness and you’re asking me if I’m happier, I would think you want me to be happier, and so I give you the answer I think you want. How do you mitigate that kind of thing?

Lyubomirsky: I love these questions…The problem you refer to is called “demand characteristics”: I’m on a happiness study, the experimenter wants me to get happier, so I’m going to satisfy the experimenter or myself by saying that I’m happier or convincing myself that I’m happier.

One way we get around that is the control group. Usually our control group does something neutral. For example, we’ll ask them, “Each week we want you to write down everything you do …We want you to try to organize your time and think about how you organize your time.” We tell them this is a positive activity that makes people happier, so both the control group and the experimental group-think that they’re in a happiness experiment.

It’s not perfect, because it’s not as easy to convince someone who’s doing this organizational task that it really is a happiness strategy, but we try whatever we can to combat the problems that you mentioned.

McNally: Here’s a broader problem. Please, tell me I’m wrong. I’ve often thought that a huge percentage of the participants in most of these kinds of tests that are college students and graduate students. So what we really learn from most of these experiments is how college and graduate students respond in certain situations.

Lyubomirsky: That’s a great point, and we address that by doing lots of studies with real people living and working in the community. We just finished a study with engineering workers in Tokyo; a study in Spain of people who work at Coca-Cola Spain; and another with 9-11 year old kids in Vancouver. So we do plenty of studies that don’t use college students. But we also do studies with college students, and you’re right, it’s not a very representative sample. So if all of your studies are with college students you’re in trouble.

McNally: Am I correct that even today a significant percentage of such studies, not just yours but throughout the whole realm of psychology and behavior and so on, rely on…?

Lyubomirsky: You’re right, a lot of them are done with college students. It used to be like 90%, but now with new technologies and the internet, it’s becoming a smaller percentage.

McNally: Describe another experiment.

Lyubomirsky: I love one that we just did in Spain. We went to a company in Madrid - we had to translate everything into Spanish, of course - and asked some of the employees in an office setting to be what we call “givers.” It’s kind of like Secret Santa, we gave people a list of ten of their colleagues, and asked them to do three acts of kindness for them in a week. The “receivers” did not realize they were on the list.

So the givers did acts of kindness for receivers; the receivers were just “lucky” to be the recipients of kindness; and everyone else in the workplace were “observers”. The results were amazing. We found that both the givers and receivers got happier, especially the receivers – imagine, suddenly your colleagues are doing all these nice things for you.

The givers were still more engaged in their work and less depressed months after our study was over. There was a Pay it Forward effect: the recipients of kindness started to help their colleagues more. There was also an Inspiration effect: if you just happen to observe other people do acts of kindness for their colleagues, you start to do good things as well. We feel that we transformed the whole workplace.

In another study, we ask people to write a letter of gratitude each week to someone who’s helped you in your life, and that’s also a very powerful producer of happiness.

McNally: These experiments involve acts of kindness or generosity or gratitude, and it strikes me that, whether from religion or grandma, everyone has always recommended such behavior. So, with your experiments, you’re saying these are not just old wives’ tales; they actually work.

Lyubomirsky: It does sound like common wisdom - I sometimes get emails saying, everything you’ve studied is in the Bible - yet we need to test systematically because some of these could be old wives’ tales, they could actually be wrong.

McNally: How do kindness and happiness impact creativity or innovation or teamwork?

Lyubomirsky: Research shows that when people become happier, they become more creative, their immune system becomes stronger, their relationships improve, they become more productive at work. There are lots of benefits to experiencing positive emotions and happiness.

McNally: Have you found some old time advice that doesn’t work? Let’s get into the myths.

Lyubomirsky: I find that it sometimes depends on the person. For example, we did a study where we asked depressed college students to write gratitude letters, and they got less happy rather than more. That was really surprising to us, and we realized is that it’s important to tailor the strategies and activities to the individual. Maybe if try to be grateful when you’re too depressed, it might backfire. You might find it too difficult; you might feel guilty that you haven’t expressed gratitude in the past; you might feel there’s no one in your life to be grateful for.

McNally: What have you found works for them?

Lyubomirsky: It depends, but we find that for depressed individuals, something very simple works better. For example, write down three good things that happened today. Although writing a gratitude letter may involve a lot of introspection, no matter how depressed you are, you can come up with “it was a sunny day today.”

McNally: How big is the field of positive psychology? How did grow? And what do you consider the most meaningful findings so far?

Lyubomirsky: Positive psychology is basically a refocusing of psychology that was moved forward by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. They inspired a lot of young scientists to study not only the negative things in life, like stress or trauma or divorce or depression, but to study the positive side of life. What makes people flourish? What are people’s strengths? What makes people happy? Now a lot of people are focusing on well-being. If you pick up a mainstream psychology journal, a lot of the titles have “well-being” or positive emotions in the title. I argue that it’s no longer necessary to have a field called Positive Psychology, it’s just part of psychology.

McNally: That’s a real benchmark isn’t it, when you reach the point where you don’t need the designation?

Lyubomirsky: I avoid calling myself a “positive psychologist”. I study happiness; I study generosity; I study gratitude; I study humility; I’m a social psychologist. In terms of the most important findings, I focus on how people can increase their happiness. I also study strengths. We have a line of research on humility - what is humility, how do you measure it, what are its benefits, how do people become more humble? We also study generosity.

McNally: In terms of some of the things you’ve mentioned, what books do you recommend?

Lyubomirsky: I’ve loved a number of books by positive psychologists. Barbara Frederickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has written one called Positivity, about the value of positive emotions; another calledLove 2.0, about love, which is a strength. I love Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books on flow. He’s a great writer, I really recommend reading him.

Another one of my favorites is The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.

McNally: That’s a fascinating one.

Lyubomirsky: Schwartz points out that though we think the more choices the better, sometimes choice can be overwhelming and paralyzing. John Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis is a great introduction to both the psychology and the philosophy of happiness. Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is about how people predict what will make them happy. There’s tons of books out there.

McNally: How did this book The Myths of Happiness happen?

Lyubomirsky: My first book, How of Happiness, was about the science behind how people can become happier. A lot of people have the wrong ideas about what will make them happy and what will make them miserable. There are two categories of myths that I talk about. First, people think “Well I’m not happy now, but I will be happy when…X, Y and Z happen. When I get married, when I have a baby, when I get that job I’ve always wanted, when I strike it rich, when I move to that city I always wanted to live in, THEN I’ll be happy”.

The problem is that those things do make people happy, but they don’t make them happy for as long or as intensely as they think they will. I have a few chapters in the book about that myth. The second myth is about things that we think will make us miserable forever: “Oh, if I got a divorce, I would never recover. If I became ill, I’d be miserable forever. If I didn’t find a life partner or I didn’t make as much money as I thought I needed, I’d be unhappy for ever.” Those are myths as well.

McNally: The negative ones I can see - I’m stuck in a bad relationship, but I would be miserable if I got divorced. I’m stuck in a bad job, but I would be miserable if I weren’t making this much money. That’s where pointing out that those myths becomes important.

Lyubomirsky: In the book I have chapters on these myths: jobs, relationships, money, illness, aging etc. People need to learn what others experience when they get divorced or get ill or when they don’t have much money. The research shows that human beings are remarkably resilient.

On average, people recover very well after divorce, for example. You’re miserable for a while, I think the average is about four to five years. Then you rebound and become quite a bit happier than you were in that bad relationship. With money, people get used to simplifying their lives. I’m not talking about poverty where you aren’t meeting your basic needs. With aging, a lot of us think, oh my God, I don’t want to get old, but it turns out older people are happier. We think we’d be miserable if we were single, and it turns out single people are just as happy as married people.

I’m not telling people they should get divorced or that they should not find a life partner or they should quit their jobs, but I’m giving them information so they can make informed decisions.

McNally: Even if the grass is greener, you won’t notice it after a while.

Lyubomirsky:That’s right.

McNally: How do certain things correlate with happiness? Let’s start with age: young versus old?

Lyubomirsky: Probably the least happy are young people, teenagers or 20s. Wouldn’t it be great to be 25 again? No it wouldn’t. People become emotionally wiser as they get older. You know better what makes you happy and what doesn’t. You tend to spend time with people who make you happy as opposed to people who make you unhappy. You take fewer risks when you’re older. There are pros and cons to that, but it does make you happier.

One of my favorite studies asks young and old people, “If you could have lunch, sitting next to anyone you want, your favorite author, your favorite celebrity, who would you have lunch with?” Young people overwhelmingly choose someone like their favorite author. Older people choose, “my sister”, “my best friend”. They know that they would have a great time with those people, and they would rather not take the risk.

McNally: It also seems more reality based, which makes sense. They’ve experienced more reality. Income? Wealth?

Lyubomirsky: Both are related to happiness. People who have greater wealth or who have higher incomes are happier than people who do not. You see the relationship at pretty much every level. Someone who makes a million dollars a year is happier than someone who makes $700,000 a year, but that difference is not very big. There is a correlation but it’s a small correlation.

The biggest jump is once you have your basic needs met. If you’re poor enough that you worry about your rent, about having food on the table, living in a safe neighborhood, etc. that makes you very unhappy. Once you have your basic needs met, then more money just makes you a little bit happier.

One of the reasons for that is called “hedonic adaptation,” and it’s a major theme of my book. We adapt to what we have. We get a raise so we move into a bigger house and buy a nicer car - and we get used to it. We start taking it for granted and then we want more and more and more.

McNally: Education?

Lyubomirsky: Zero correlation with education and happiness.

McNally: Health?

Lyubomirsky: Health is definitely related to happiness, especially self-reported health, where you ask people, “On a scale of 1-10, how healthy are you?” The biggest issue in terms of health is chronic pain. It’s almost impossible to be happy when you’re in pain. Also if you have a condition or an illness that’s deteriorating. People can get used to almost anything. If you become disabled – let’s say you lose a leg or you lose your eyesight - it’s really traumatic at first, but people get used to it over time, and can lead happy, full lives. But if your condition is worsening, you never get used to it.

McNally: Urban versus rural?

Lyubomirsky: The studies that I’ve seen recently show that urban people are less happy than rural. There’s self-selection in the type of people who move into urban areas, and there’s more stress.

McNally: You’ve already talked about single versus married, but could you go into some of the nuances of that one?

Lyubomirsky: Married people are definitely happier than people who are widowed, divorced or separated. We’re talking here about people who’ve been consistently married, not those who are on their third or fourth marriage. Compare consistently married versus consistently single,

and there’s no difference in happiness. We’ve done studies of lifelong single women, and they have many very close friendships, lots of activities, work, hobbies that they get meaning from. You don’t need an intimate partner to be happy.

McNally: Haven’t they found that single people have more friends?

Lyubomirsky: Lifelong single people tend to have an average of a dozen lifelong close friendships. How many of us who are married with children can claim to have a dozen friends with whom we keep in regular touch?

McNally: Childless versus having children? Please go into when you first have them and when they leave, because I find that fascinating.

Lyubomirsky: This is a topic of research that my graduate students and I are working on right now. When you get pregnant and have your first child, there’s a boost of happiness. Then it tends to decrease and there’s not a huge difference over time. The hardest part is when you have children under age five. Marital happiness or relationship happiness is fairly low at that point. Having teenagers is also an unhappy time.

McNally: It’s unhappy for both the teenager and the parent, isn’t it?

Lyubomirsky: I have teenagers and little ones, so I have a double whammy, but I’m pretty happy.

The empty nest is a time of greater happiness. These studies are all a little bit problematic, but overall, parents report more meaning in their life than people who don’t have children. We find that parents who are relatively older, married and employed, are happier than people who do not have children. Young parents and single parents, however, don’t tend to be happier than non-parents.

McNally: Religious or spiritual versus non-religious?

Lyubomirsky: Religious or spiritual people are happier than people who are not, but the key question is “Why?” And there are two reasons. First, religious and spiritual people tend to have better social support. They might have stronger relationships or a bigger community they rely on, especially in times of stress or adversity. They also report more purpose in life, which also helps them deal with adversity. This doesn’t mean that if you’re not religious or spiritual, you can’t have social support and you can’t have meaning, but those two things are more likely for a religious person.

McNally: Are there studies on liberals or progressives versus conservatives?

Lyubomirsky: I was just going to say, you didn’t ask me about Democrats versus Republicans. There is a research study published that shows Republicans are happier than Democrats. This particular study needs to be replicated, but it showed or suggested that one of the reasons Republicans were happier is that they have a greater tolerance for inequality. I don’t really buy that. I think there are so many differences between Republicans and Democrats that I doubt that explains it.

McNally: Men versus women?

Lyubomirsky: No difference in overall happiness, but there are differences in emotion fluctuation. Women have higher highs and lower lows, they’re more likely to fluctuate. Men are much more stable.

McNally: Americans versus people from other countries?

Lyubomirsky: That really depends on the country. People who live in Scandinavian countries tend to report that they’re the happiest in the world. But a lot of countries, like Latin American countries, that are very collectivist, very much focused on family, social life, and close relationships, tend to be happy. Happiness is also related to things like GDP and democracy. Countries that are more democratic or wealthier are also happier.

McNally: When you’re studying happiness, do you merely want to know what happened, i.e., what events stimulate which neurotransmitters, or do you also want to know why? And, if you want to know why, is that something that can be studied?

Lyubomirsky: I definitely want to know why. Even though I study happiness interventions, I’m actually more interested in why they work. Why is it that people get happier when they express gratitude and how does that work?

I have a couple of theories. For example, we might do a study where we ask people to write letters of gratitude every week. Then we measure a lot of other things to see what that gratitude is doing. Why is it that gratitude makes people happy? We found that people who express gratitude report more positive events in their life. Imagine writing a letter to your mother thanking her for everything she did for you, or writing a letter the next week to your former mentor or teacher. What does that do? It actually creates positivity in your life. It can actually make you feel closer to your parents or your mentors or your friends. We study the how and the why of happiness.

McNally: How much of the why - in your studies or in the broader field - do people look for in biology and evolutionary psychology?

Lyubomirsky: I’m fascinated with evolutionary psychology and researchers are beginning to investigate these big questions, but it’s in the embryonic stages. Why is it that we’re more attuned to negative things? It’s adaptive first, in order to notice the snake. Why is it that we’re attuned to novelty as opposed to familiarity? Because novelty might be a signal of a danger or a reward or an opportunity in the environment.

There’s very interesting work going on in biology and neuroscience, but at this point it’s mostly correlational. The brains of people who are happier might look a little bit different, but what does that mean? If an area lights up in your brain when you’re happier, we want to know what that means. At this point, I think the science is just too young to answer those questions, but I’m very excited to see what the future will bring.

McNally: How will that science mature? In the types of studies you’re doing, we can do better experiments and we can get clearer about what the variables are, and so on. But when you’re trying to figure out the evolutionary utility of something, does it ever go beyond a really good imagination?

Lyubomirsky: I don’t know. I’m not trained in those fields so it’s hard for me to answer those questions. With evolutionary theory, you can’t do experiments, it’s very hard to test hypotheses, so it’s always a theory. And with biology, again I don’t know. Every decade brings a whole new set of findings and questions. All I can say is I’m excited to see what the next decade will bring.

McNally: Is there something naïve about the whole self-help, happiness, positive psychology field? Given the enormous and growing inequality of wealth, income, and political power in US society, for instance, shouldn’t people be unhappy or angry? James Hillman and Michael Ventura wrote a book in the early ‘90s, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy--And the World's Getting Worse - their point being that after all this therapy, we’re no longer in touch with how angry we should be. Your thoughts on that?

Lyubomirsky: That’s interesting. It could be kind of the opium of the masses. Things aren’t so good, so why don’t we all just try to be grateful for what we have?

McNally: All these middle-class people are losing what they expected to have… If we can get them to do more random acts of kindness, perhaps they won’t notice.

Lyubomirsky: I don’t completely agree with that, but it’s a point well taken.

The research shows that it’s the happiest people who are going to be most likely to change the world. They are the ones who have more energy, motivation, ideas, and creativity. They’re healthier, more active, more productive. Depressed people don’t go out and join movements. Maybe if you’re a little depressed, but if you’re very depressed you can just sit on your couch. The happiest people are going to see inequality and they’re going to want to do something about it.

McNally: It seems like one of the most fascinating areas of study to me. If we’re going to improve society and not just the moment-to-moment happiness of each other, the way those things fit together seems crucial. You’re saying that the person who makes change not only notices what’s wrong, but also has the feeling of self-efficacy to actually take it on…

Lyubomirsky: Happier people are more optimistic, more confident, more motivated, more energetic. They’re the ones who are going to take on those big challenges.

McNally: The research says that happiness is 50% determined by genes, which I think would really surprise some people; 10% by demographic and circumstantial factors - wealth, income, whether you have a job or not; and the remaining 40% seems to be what we have some control of, no matter the circumstances or the genes. Is that correct?

Lyubomirsky: Yes.

McNally: But if you tell me I’m responsible for my happiness, does that make me more likely to think unhappiness is my fault? And can that create a vicious cycle, of “I should be able to fix this?”

Lyubomirsky: The notion that 50% can be accounted for by genetics comes from twin studies where identical twins are much more similar in their happiness level than fraternal twins. 50% is a lot. It’s not 100%, but it’s a lot. Those of us who have more than one child often say to ourselves, “I feel like I raised them the same, but some of my kids are just less happy than others.” The fact that so much of it is genetic should make people not blame themselves as much.

And there are things you can do. Some people don’t want to become happier. They feel that happy people see the world with rose-colored glasses while they see the world as it truly is. If someone doesn’t want to become happier, I’m not going to persuade them otherwise.

McNally: If they’re happy being unhappy, why argue with them…

From all your work in this field, what is the most useful thing that you want to tell people?

Lyubomirsky: First, you can become happier if you want to. Second, it takes a lot of work to improve your emotional life, to be happier, to improve your relationships. As with any goal in life, you have to put the effort in. Third, if you want to be happier, you have to find what works for you.

Some people hear about trying to be grateful, and they think that’s hokey, That’s fine. Do something else - try to learn a new skill, go traveling, do more exercise, get involved in spiritual activities, whatever floats your boat. Fit is important; effort is important; but most important, know you can become happier.

Look at the science. I think that it’s very important to go by empirical evidence. If you want to spend a lot of time doing something, make sure that it’s validated.

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