Author Archives: Maren


It has been nearly 6 years since I first stumbled upon the term epigenetics. It’s the study of how our behaviors and environment regulate the way our genes work. One might refer to it as the science of living DNA. Thanks to a wonderful lecture series by Dr. Charlotte Mykura entitled Epigenetics: How Environment Changes Your Biology, I have a little better understanding of how this mechanism works.

In my rudimentary understanding of DNA, I pictured pristine, straight-edged, double-helix strand with a left twist. When called into action, I assumed that it “unzipped” to allow its code to be copied and then “zipped back up” to its previous state. The latter is mostly right, the former not so much.

DNA with attachmentsAcetyl groups, methyl groups, and proteins of all shapes and sizes bind to DNA causing portions of it to remain open and active, and other portions to lie dormant. Scientists refer to DNA with all its molecular attachments as chromatin. Euchromatin refers to open DNA that expresses its genome; heterochromatin refers to tightly packed, “sleeping” DNA. Far from the neat and tidy lines of genetic code, DNA contorts into wild 3-D shapes, takes on and shakes off attachments, and wiggles around in response to neighboring organic material.

In addition to the influence of molecular attachment, DNA expression can be affected by what happens outside the cell’s nucleus. DNA relies upon messenger RNA to carry information its codes to ribosomes for protein synthesis. MicroRNA in the cytoplasm can break down mRNA such that no protein gets made. Or, another RNA string might get spliced into the mRNA strand and alter expression of the gene. And PRotein infectIONs (PRIONs) within the cytoplasm can manipulate proteins after they’ve been formed, generally not for the better. (Apparently, this mechanism was at play with the outbreak of Mad Cow disease.)

In short, if you think your genes determine the life you will lead – for better or worse – think again. While a subset of your encoding remains active and stable, a whole lot can be influenced epigenetically by your environment.

Here are some examples of how epigenetics plays out in our bodies:

  • While every cell in the body contains the same DNA, epigenetics impacts how the cell behaves based on its location. For example, if it’s in the gut, it will use its programming to digest food, produce vitamins, support healthy immune function, and eliminate waste. It knows not to grow hair, teeth, or toenails in that environment even though it has access to the codes to do so!
  • The brain is a hot bed of epigenetic activity. It’s the mechanism through which the brain learns and grows, building complex neural networks and pairing back connections that are rarely used.
  • Our immune system also provides a stellar example of epigenetics in action. It has the ability to adapt dynamically to new pathogens and develop targeted responses that will eliminate them.
  • The fetal environment exerts a profound influence on a child’s epigenetic structure. If the mother starved during pregnancy, the child’s DNA will have far less DNA methylation, causing excess conservation of fat and elevated risk of diabetes type 2. If the mother produced high levels of cortisol during pregnancy due to stress, the child will develop more cortisol receptors and be predisposed to anxiety, schizophrenia, and/or autism.
  • Persons living with obesity have a different epigenetic signature in their guts than thin persons, making it more difficult to process fat and sugar. Moreover, when fat accumulates in the blood vessels, it influences the surrounding cells epigenetically, making them proinflammatory.
  • Food is the largest environmental impact on epigenetics. When we eat healthfully, we promote a healthy expression of our genes. While an obese person may face a steep climb to reverse years of poor dietary choices, the body will respond favorably in time.
  • Exercise is good for epigenetic health. DNA methylation has been correlated with muscle loss and frailty in older adults. Methylation shows signs of removal after just 20 minutes of cardio exercise. Moreover, biochemical signaling molecules released during exercise travel to the heart and lungs, exerting a positive epigenetic effect that decreases the risk of disease.
  • Pollution damages DNA epigenetically by overwhelming our natural cellular repair mechanisms and disrupting DNA methylation. Both lead to increased risk of cancer. While it may be difficult to avoid external pollutants, we can certainly minimize our exposure by not ingesting contaminants. (In other words, don’t smoke!)
  • We experience epigenetic drift as we age. Formerly tight coils of DNA can become open and floppy; formerly active DNA can curl up and go to sleep. Both influences can lead to random gene expression with adverse health consequences.

I really found the lecture series fascinating and would encourage those who have Wondrium subscriptions to view it. I am truly amazed by the marvel of the human body and how it works. I’m also encouraged to sustain healthy habits to encourage forwarding epigenetic expression.

Thoughts We Think Per Day

neural network

At a talk I attended recently, the speaker posited that the average person thinks tens of thousands of thoughts per day of which 95% are the same as the day before. My experience aligns somewhat with incessant repetition, but I took issue with a mind that conjured up a new thought every couple of seconds. Moreover, I wondered: How in the world would someone measure the frequency and content of thoughts scientifically? Time for a little research…

Early attempts at thought measurement relied upon self-reporting. Presumably, subjects kept a tally every time they found themselves thinking a thought and marked whether it was a novel one. Of course, the very act of interrupting a thought for reporting purposes would disrupt the brain’s natural processes. And I suspect that such reports were not entirely reliable.

With the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, scientists gained the ability to detect patterns in brain network activation and tie them to discrete objects (e.g., faces, houses). Not surprisingly, it takes a lot of work and a chunk of change to map the thought pattern for each object. Given the mind-boggling number of objects in the world, the current database proves woefully incomplete to track what people think. Moreover, the complexity of mapping thought patterns ratchets up considerably given that each thought also reflects the subject’s relationship to the object – e.g., perceiving, believing, fearing, imagining, remembering. So, I don’t place much weight in aforementioned speaker’s characterization of our daily thought patterns.

I managed to stumble upon a report by Dr. Jordan Poppenk and his research assistant Julie Tseng from the Centre for Neuroscience Studies in Queen’s University, Kingston, ON opted that gave me something solid on which to stand. They eschewed concerns about what people think in favor of determining the frequency with which subjects transition from one thought to the next (a.k.a. their mentation rate). It turns out that this inquiry can be measured reliably using fMRI data. They published their methodology and findings in the July 2020 issue of Nature Communications.1 Though I found the text rather dense scientifically, I’ll try to explain in simple terms what I think it says.

Poppenk and Tseng’s scientific progenitors took fMRI scans on subjects as they watched well-crafted movies. Participants displayed similar brain activity patterns in widespread low- and higher-order areas. These studies showed how movies exert control over our cognitive states and identified the associated neural circuitry. Poppenk and Tseng suggested that a similar mechanism existed for spontaneous thought. They reasoned that both activities involve a shift in focal point during which new information integrates with existing representations to move a storyline forward.

They analyzed fMRI data from 184 participants taken while watching a movie and at rest. They used the latter to distinguish random fragments of neural activity from contiguous, worm-like segments that arose in response to an attractor (or focal point) that stabilized neural network configurations. Having developed the means to map and measure thought worms2 for minds at rest, they applied their methodology to the fMRI data associated with movie watching. They verified that their worm-like constructs held psychological relevance. They also validated the hypothesis that a mind at rest displays the same thought architecture as a mind in a stimulus-controlled environment. As they stated in scientific jargon:

“Based on the centrality of semantics to thought, we argue these transitions serve as general, implicit neurobiological markers of new thoughts, and that their frequency, which is stable across contexts, approximates participants’ mentation rate.”

Poppenk and Tseng measured the average median thought transition rate across movie-viewing and at rest to be 6.5 transitions per minute. Assuming an 8-hour sleep cycle, that corelates to over six thousand thoughts per day. They also detected higher mentation rates for persons associated with neuroses. That finding is consistent with such individual’s susceptibility to distraction and excessive self-generated thoughts.

While advancing knowledge of the erstwhile mysterious brain, Poppenk and Tseng advocate for additional research to explore and build on their findings. Beyond satisfying intellectual curiosity, their research could lead to early detection of neurosis, schizophrenia, ADHD, etc. and open up the possibility of accelerated life-enhancing intervention.


1 See article entitled “Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism” at
2 Thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain. They reflect consecutive moments when a person focuses on an idea.

Sustaining Happiness

“If you want to reap long term emotional benefits from a happiness activity, you need to devote persistent effort.” – Sonia Lyubomirsky

As I hearken back to the original post in this series, I land once again on the finding that 40% of our happiness level can be attributed to our intentional activity. Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky provided 12 evidence-based strategies with which to invest intentional effort in The How of Happiness. She closes the book with five overarching practices to sustain happiness.

sustaining happinessArchitect positive emotion. Create lots of happy moments that engender feelings of joy, delight, contentment, serenity, curiosity, interest, vitality, enthusiasm, and satisfaction. Positive emotions beget positive thinking. They encourage us to be more productive, active, healthy, friendly, helpful, resilient, and creative. They help us achieve our goals and set new ones.

The book presents an interesting hypothetical of a windfall gain of a large sum of money. Rather than blow it all on a fancy car or new home, the happier person spends it gradually over time on lots of joyful experiences. One big jolt of happiness wears off quickly. A series of happy moments creates an upward spiral of positivity.

Experiment with timing and variety. Even the best laid happiness plans can succumb to hedonic adaptation. We get used to them and fail to get the “happiness hit” that we’d like. Try spacing activities out and varying their content to keep the experience fresh. Avoid making them rote or treating them like chores. For example, count blessings once a week rather than every day. Or designate a “do-gooder” day and concentrate giving and volunteerism on that day. Shake things up periodically and see what works best.

Get social support. As Lyubomirsky says: “Any change in behavior that requires effort and dedication will be easier if spouse, children, friends, parents, siblings, coworkers are supportive.” They can work with you to remove impediments to your behavioral change. They can provide tangible support, comfort, and motivation. And they can offer feedback and encouragement. Lyubomirsky cites a 4-month weight loss experiment with two groups. Of the folks who dieted with friends, 95% completed the program and 66% kept the weight off for 6 months. Of the folks who dieted alone, 76% completed the program and only 24% kept the weight off for 6 months.

Make a commitment. A happiness program takes time and sustained effort. Participants must resolve to do it, learn the tools of the trade, do the work, and maintain a constancy of effort long term. The desire for change must be deep-seated; intrinsic motivation makes all the difference.

Make happiness a habit. I’ve read quite a few books on the power of habit. They’re forged when we inculcate a behavior in response to a specific cue or circumstance in anticipation of a reward. While it takes repetition to groove a habit, the behavior eventually becomes automatic in response to the trigger. We don’t think or decide; we just do. As such, we’d do well to go on autopilot with our versions of Lyubomirsky’s happiness strategies. We’ll reap the greatest amount of joy for the least amount of effort.

Happiness Strategy: Be Attentive to Body and Soul

This website focuses on ideas to nourish the body, mind, and spirit. After extensive reading on that broad subject matter over the past several years, I’m not the least bit surprised that the final two strategies in Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness concern taking good care of ourselves.

Practice religion or spirituality. Studies have shown that religious people are happier, healthier, and recover more quickly from trauma than non-religious folks. As a case in point, 47% of folks who attending church several times per week rate themselves “very happy”; only 28% claim the same degree of happiness when attending church less than once per month. Lyubomirsky posits several explanations for this finding:

  • duke chapelOne’s relationship with the Divine provides a source of comfort and guidance.
  • Through faith, adherents find meaning in life as well as a sense that their presence and efforts matter.
  • The sacred texts and their interpreters yield guidance for living a virtuous life with rewards in this life or the next. These guideposts may give rise to healthy lifestyles and avoidance of risky behaviors.
  • Contemplative prayer quiets the mind and stills the anxious soul; intercessory prayer provides comfort while seeking favorable intervention for the matters at hand.
  • The faith community provides social support, a sense of identity, and collective of people with shared values.
  • Faith inculcates a disposition to forgive.

Lyubomirsky notes that a few faith practices are not conducive to elevating happiness. They are belief in original sin (which lowers self-esteem), belief in a punitive God (which engenders guilt, shame, and fear), and a practice of intercessory prayer alone with no accompanying effort.

Those disinclined to pursue a faith-based practice may be advised seek the sacred in their daily lives. This pursuit may find expression in the sanctification of a life’s work, attentive care of the planet, caregiving for others, or advocacy for an important cause. It may entail engaging with others to explore the great philosophical texts and develop a coherent life scheme. It might involve communing with nature or reveling in the transcendent expression of art.

Whether a person of faith or not, a consistent practice of meditation brings the possibility of enlightenment and joy. Key elements to fruitful practice include: (i) be nonjudgmental; (ii) be non-striving; (iii) be patient; (iv) be trusting; (v) be open; and, (vi) let go. Practitioners realize elevated happiness, reduced stress and anxiety, improved immune function, heightened cognitive capacity, and deep compassion for all beings.

Take care of your body. I’ve written numerous posts extolling the virtues of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep. Based on scientific evidence, my household leans toward a vegan diet, though we eat meat occasionally. Committed omnivores might consider a reduction in meat intake and eliminate processed foods, sugar in all its forms, salt, and excess fat.

A daily dose of 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise can bolster health, relieve stress and anxiety, lower risk of disease, and promote sleep. It improves happiness by boosting self-esteem as one masters new skills and sees positive change. It’s a vehicle for “flow” (discussed two weeks ago) that provides a respite from worries and rumination. And it creates opportunities for social engagement if pursued through group activities or team sports.

We all need adequate sleep to regenerate physically, cognitively, and emotionally. A sleep deficit causes us to suffer in mood, energy, alertness, longevity, and health. Check out How To Prepare for a Good Night’s Sleep for tips on improving sleep habits.

Finally, Lyubomirsky encourages us to act happy. Smiling and laughter thwart negative emotions and usher in feelings of peace, amusement, and joy. They’re also social magnets that give rise to friendliness in others. Even the mere act of putting on a happy face can make us feel better!

Happiness Strategy: Commit to Goals

commit to goalsMy sixth post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness hearkens back to a piece I wrote six years ago when covering Dr. Martin Seligman’s five pillars of positive psychology. He defined the good life as “using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” Lyubomirsky couldn’t agree more. Her research found that individuals working toward something personally significant were far happier than those who did not pursue their dreams and aspirations. Moreover, she found that the process of working toward a valued and challenging goal contributed as much to well-being as its attainment.

Lyubomirsky identifies six benefits of being a goal-directed individual:

  • We gain a sense of purpose and feeling of control.
  • We strengthen our project planning muscles by breaking down high-level goals into subgoals and tasks and identifying the skills and time tables necessary to complete them.
  • We make effective use of our time by setting the day’s priorities and working toward deadlines.
  • Our efforts frequently bring us into close contact with others as we seek their assistance in completing our assignments.
  • Our focus on meaningful tasks proves an effective coping mechanism when dealing with problems and disappointments.
  • Goal-setting bolsters our self-esteem, self-confidence, and efficacy.

While the pursuit and attainment of any goal can bring a sense of satisfaction, we don’t always get a boost in positivity in the doing of it. Happiness-inducing goals have the following characteristics:

  • They are personally meaningful, engaging, motivating, and rewarding. They satisfy the need for autonomy, competency, and connection with folks who share a natural interest. Their pursuit does not depend on what others think.
  • They are rooted in deeply held interests and core values and align with the pursuer’s personality.
  • They draw people toward them; they’re not about avoiding an undesired outcome.
  • They complement the other goals that the individual pursues.
  • They’re appropriate to one’s age, opportunities, and circumstances; they adapt in the wake of changing priorities.
  • They give rise to a range of activities that allow for a continuous stream of new experiences, new connections, challenges, and skill development.

In an ideal world, our professions provide the opportunity for creating happiness-inducing goals. It may take some ingenuity to attend to the assigned responsibilities and work other goals into the mix. WE might ask ourselves: What would make this job more interesting? What new skills could I develop in this role? Is it possible to get everything done more efficiently and effectively, thereby leaving time for other pursuits? Or, could I engage my mind in some other activity while doing the assigned work? Outside working hours, we might explore activities that really light us up and see how we might pursue them in a more goal-directed way.

Goal-directed behavior plays a big role in keeping retirees healthy and happy. Absent the structure of paid employment, many wind up frittering away all the precious free time they’ve gained through years of hard work. To keep their spirits and sense of self alive and well, they need to identify interests that can be pursued with passion. Take and/or teach classes. Serve as an advocate for an important social cause. Volunteer. Become an artist. Learn a musical instrument. Train for a half-marathon. If the road ahead offers limited guideposts, they might seek a group of fellow sojourners to explore the path with them.

Happiness Strategy: Live in the Present

In this fifth post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, I’ll look into the value of living in the present. According to Professors Matthew A Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, our minds wander 46.9% of our waking hours. Rather than focusing on what we’re doing, we’re ruminating about the past, contemplating the future, or fussing about situations that may not come to pass. And as it turns out, mind-wandering makes us unhappy. So, what can we do about it?

girl in a state of flowPursue engaging activities. In his national bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi advanced the thesis that people are happiest when they are so completely immersed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time. Such activities tend to be challenging and demand our full concentration while stretching our skills and expertise. We feel fully in control yet swept away by the current of activity. Such activities are deemed inherently pleasurable and worthy of repetition, albeit with ever-increasing demands on our abilities. Csíkszentmihályi notes:

“There is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.”

To that end, the chosen activity must balance our current skills with the designated challenge. Too little challenge and the activity induces boredom; too much and it engenders anxiety and frustration. When just right, the state of flow proves highly engaging and yields a substantive boost to self-esteem in its aftermath. Lyubomirsky’s recommendations for pursing flow include:

  • Cultivating the art of paying attention consistently to the task at hand
  • Becoming a lifelong learner, approaching each new subject with an open beginner’s mind
  • Paying attention to the activities in which you naturally experience flow; figure out how to replicate them
  • Adding mind-bending elements to routine tasks – e.g., working through puzzles in your head, writing poems, composing melodies, committing things to memory
  • Creating flow in conversations by listening deeply
  • Narrating your chosen profession as a calling rather than just a job or career

Savor life’s joys. When ruminating, planning, or worrying, we’re foregoing the opportunity to revel in all the good that life has to offer. We may even get stuck in a cycle of negativity. We could choose instead to savor the past by reveling in our fondest memories. We could relish whatever is happening in the present moment. And we could anticipate the future with a sense of optimism. When we mindfully accentuate positive experience, we bolster our happiness and make it less likely that depression, anxiety, guilt, or stress will take root. A few activities to put in the hopper include:

  • Slowing down and paying close attention to the sights, smells tastes, sounds, and feel of ordinary moments – e.g., truly savoring a meal rather than gulping it down while dashing off to another activity
  • Waxing nostalgic about the good old days with friends and family, thereby increasing the experience of joy, accomplishment, amusement, and pride
  • Celebrating good news however big or small with family and friends
  • Being open to beauty and excellence
  • Creating a savoring photo album or soundtrack to reference periodically as a means of reawakening a sense of joy

Happiness Strategy: Manage Hardship

manage hardshipIn this fourth post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, I’ll discuss strategies for coping with life’s inevitable downturns. According to Lyubomirsky, half of all adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime – e.g., death, terminal or chronic illness, major surgery, job loss, natural disaster. We’ll also know the pain of navigating the end-of-life for parents and grandparents, break-ups, friendships gone sour, work and family stress, and other disappointments. We need to find our way out of hurt, sadness, depression, confusion, and/or fear such that the disruption’s impact does not become a permanent state of despair.

Develop coping strategies. Lyubomirsky says our response to a negative event or situation can be problem-focused (seeking resolution), emotion-focused (managing reaction), or some combination of the two. A problem-focused approach may look at options, identify pro/cons, assess costs/benefits, and develop criteria for decision-making. It relieves stress by providing a means to reassert control and take action. An emotion-focused approach provides comfort or relief in the moment and helps move toward a state of acceptance and equilibrium. Representative tactics include:

  • Engaging in a pleasant distraction to give the heart and soul a measure of respite – e.g., go hiking, walk on the beach at sunset, take in a movie
  • Seeking support from close friends with whom you can share your feelings unreservedly and know that you do not face your suffering alone
  • Using expressive writing to create a coherent narrative that helps you understand, come to terms with, and accept the current circumstances
  • Finding a means to reinterpret the current situation such that you focus on the “silver lining,” the lessons learned, the perspective gained, or the opportunity for personal growth

The situation may yet be a source of profound grief or distress. It may take time to work it through and reclaim your peace of mind. Yet in its midst lies the possibility of acknowledging the fragility of life and reorienting priorities to align with what matters most. You may come out the other side with greater self-confidence, stronger relationships, more compassion for others, and a deeper sense of meaning for your life.

Learn to forgive. With the world’s great faith traditions routinely instruct their followers to practice forgiveness, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. When we’ve been wronged, hurt, or attacked, the last thing most of us want to do is “turn the other cheek.” More likely, we’ll feel angry, uncharitable, and even vengeful. Yet this preoccupation, hostility, and resentment hurts us emotionally and physically. It can make us hateful, self-righteous, anxious, neurotic, and depressed.

Forgiveness doesn’t negate the wrong that has been committed or deny reparation. It doesn’t confer a pardon nor make excuses. It doesn’t force reconciliation. Rather, it’s a shift in feelings and attitude toward the offender that allows for a release of negative emotions. It’s something we do for ourselves. Studies show that when we routinely practice forgiveness, we’re healthier, happier, more agreeable, more compassionate, and serene. We make room for the possibility of reestablishing relationship. We feel better about ourselves.

Lyubomirsky serves up several exercises to help us flex our forgiveness muscles:

  • Recognize that you need forgiveness as much as you need to forgive. Take stock of ways in which you’ve harmed others and ask their forgiveness.
  • Walk a mile in the perpetrator’s shoes. Try to see what led to the offending behavior. Be empathetic.
  • Write a letter of forgiveness. Describe the injury and its impact in detail. Express what you wish had been done differently. Then offer forgiveness. (Note: The letter does not need to be sent.)
  • Think charitable thoughts about the person who hurt you; focus on their positive attributes.
  • Ruminate less.

Happiness Strategy: Invest in Social Connections

my close frriends

In this third post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, I’ll explore two strategies consistent with the following truism: Happy people have better relationships. Not an earth-shattering revelation there, is it? After all, we’re wired for connection, so it stands to reason that those with high marks on the friends and family scale would find life more pleasant. But how do you move up the curve?

Practice acts of kindness. Happy people are more generous than their less rosy counterparts. Kindness and compassion come naturally to them. In addition to the moral dimensions of their behavior, altruism confers several tangible benefits:

  • We perceive others more positively and charitably; we’re conscious of our interdependence and act accordingly.
  • It heightens our capacity for gratitude; we give thanks for our blessings.
  • It increases our self-confidence and sense of worth. We feel great when our contributions are appreciated, and we may master new skills in the doing of good deeds.
  • It satisfies our basic need for connection; it prompts others to respond in kind.
  • It assuages guilt.

Kindness does not demand much time, money, or talent. It asks that we elevate our awareness of others’ needs and find ways to meet them. Lyubomirsky’s research suggest that the greatest bang for the kindness buck entails concentrating planned activities (versus a little each day) and varying the contributions. You want it to feel fresh and meaningful, given freely and autonomously. She cautions against creating dependencies, getting puffed up about one’s generosity, and burning out.

My husband and I have been much more intentional about our charitable giving in recent years. Rather than giving small amounts to several nonprofits, we give a more meaningful sum to a designated charity each year. We’re also mindful about when and how we donate our time such that our contributions resonate deeply with our values.

Nurture Relationships. Lyubomirsky reports that happy people are really good at friendship, family, and intimate relationship. They have deep social connections that are mutually reinforcing. Here’s what they do to cultivate connection:

  • They make time for their partner, family, and friends. They put dates on the calendar and work other obligations around them. Some have established rituals that routinely bring people together – e.g., Tuesday night beer after choir practice.
  • The establish a media-free zone. They devote their full attention to their people; they don’t let cell phone interruptions send the message that something else might be more important.
  • They make eye contact and are great listeners.
  • They express their admiration, appreciation, and affection authentically and unreservedly.
  • They take delight in others’ good fortune and readily offer a shoulder to cry on when things don’t go well. They are loyal and can be counted on for support.
  • They manage conflict effectively when it arises.
  • They share their inner life.

As an extrovert, I’ve always made an effort to sustain strong social connections. It takes time and energy to find companionable friends and to stay connected with them despite busy schedules. In some ways, COVID made that enterprise quite challenge. But it also got us acclimated to interacting with one another via video calls. I’m pleased to report that I have monthly Zoom calls with my gal pal group from Raleigh (even though we’re spread across 5 metro areas now), periodic happy hours with my dispersed choir buddies, on-line bridge with 3 other geographically dispersed friends, and regular one-on-one Zoom calls with other friends. And, of course, I still have my local choir pals, square dancing friends, book group friends, and neighborhood chums. They all enrich my life immeasurably.

Happiness Strategy: Practice Gratitude and Positive Thinking

As noted in last week’s post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, how we think about ourselves, other people, and our world has a much greater impact on our happiness than our life circumstances. To that end, Lyubomirsky’s first three evidence-based happiness strategies focus on cultivating a positive mindset.

Express gratitude. Lyubomirsky encourages us to find ways to experience wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life as it is right now. This strategy can be enacted in many ways – e.g., prayer, journal entries, moments of silence, conversations with family and friends, letters of appreciation. It can be as simple as saying “thank you” spontaneously when experiencing a kindness. Lyubomirsky notes that a gratitude practice:

  • Prompts us to savor life’s experiences and focus on what matters
  • Bolsters self-esteem and self-worth
  • Helps cope with stress and trauma
  • Encourages generosity and moral behavior
  • Nurtures relationship
  • Inhibits insidious comparisons
  • Deters negative emotions
  • Thwarts hedonic adaptation (i.e., taking good things for granted)

Gratitude journals were all the rage a few years ago. I wasn’t a fan of them as it seemed a bit contrived. (Lyubomirsky’s research showed that daily journal entries were less effective than weekly ones as the daily activity can morph from a practice to a chore.) But I make a habit of contemplating my blessings and saying “thank you” regularly especially in response to all the ways large and small my husband enriches my life. It’s good for the soul and good for the marriage!

Cultivate optimism. In the immortal words of Monty Python alum Eric Idle, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Celebrate positive images and experiences from the past and present; anticipate a rosy future in which one’s best possible self has been made manifest. In the midst of adversity, treat circumstances as temporary rather than intrinsic. Hold confidently to a belief that you’ll get through it. It pays great dividends. Per Lyubomirsky, optimists:

  • Experience positive moods, vitality, and high morale
  • Readily attract to their broad social networks
  • Set more goals and persist in their attainment
  • Engage in active, effective coping mechanisms when faced with adversity

Note that this strategy does not entail whitewashing unpleasant circumstances or putting on a false front in the presence of others. It’s the application of intentional effort to construe the world from a positive and charitable perspective. As Professor Lee Ross observed:

“[Optimism] is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.”

Avoid overthinking and social comparison. Few things can dampen joy quicker than ruminating about the meanings, causes, and consequences of sorrowful feelings, problems, and regrettable actions. It deepens sadness, fosters a negative bias, hinders concentration and problem solving, and dampens initiative. And it’s not great for relationship with yourself or others! Lyubomirsky suggest the following to shake it off:

  • Short-circuit the cycle by distracting yourself with an activity that makes you happy, curious, peaceful, amused, and/or proud. If you can’t be active, use happy thoughts as a distraction.
  • It you simply must give the matter some thought, set a time to do it and defer further thoughts on the matter until that time. If you have a close friend who is both sympathetic and objective, make a date to talk it out with that person.
  • Consider writing the matter down in a journal, perhaps returning to the written page several days in a row to work it through. Setting pen to paper can provide an organizing structure that helps move toward resolution.
  • Take action to solve the problem. Make a plan and take measured steps in that direction.
  • Be conscious of the locations, times of days, people, and activities that set off the rumination cycle and find workarounds to avoid the triggers.
  • Think about the big picture. Will this matter in a month? A year? Are there lessons to be learned? How will this inform future actions?

Social comparison can have a comparably pernicious impact. There’s always someone out there with a better life or set of achievements. If swept up in comparison, you can get caught up in feelings of inferiority, distress, and low self-esteem. And let’s face it: It’s hard to be envious and happy at the same time. Happy folks judge themselves by their own internal standards and have no problem taking pleasure in others’ success and providing comfort in their hardship. They don’t put a lot of stock in how others are doing in relation to themselves.

Beyond the simple approach of catching yourself in the comparison act and “switching channels,” you might give serious thought to giving up (or seriously restricting use of) social media. Studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are.

Evidence-Based Strategies to Bolster Happiness

“We cannot allow our happiness to depend on our external circumstances, for every positive event and accomplishment we experience are accompanied by rapid adaptation and escalating expectations.” – Sonia Lyubomirsky

Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky has made it her life’s work to help folks become happier. No, she’s not running around doling out million-dollar checks, giving people makeovers, or helping them find their perfect mates. Rather, she leverages evidence-based research to determine which factors demonstrably lead to elevated happiness. She captured her insights in The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” Studies suggest that this experience eludes more than half of all adults who are otherwise deemed “moderately mentally heathy.” And in our less than happy state, we’re not as sociable, energetic, creative, flexible, productive, resilient, healthy, long-lived, and successful as we might otherwise be.

If counting ourselves among the less-than-happy, we may fall prey to one of three happiness myths. The fatalists among us would argue that you’re either happy or you’re not. If the latter, too bad, so sad. The hopefuls among us may believe that happiness is “out there” and rely upon effort and/or good fortune to catch it. The strivers among us might put forth great effort to change their circumstances to increase their odds of finding it. For the latter, it’s all about being richer, thinner, more attractive, more successful, more popular, blissfully married, etc. Ironically, materialism is strong predictor of unhappiness! It doesn’t bring lasting happiness1 and when pursued often proves a distraction from more fruitful action.

sources pf happiness

Studies conducted on identical twins (raised together and apart) and fraternal twins show that inherited traits account for about 50% of baseline happiness. As such, even if one were not endowed with the cheeriest of genes, there’s still a lot of wiggle room to improve baseline happiness. Moreover, we know from our study of epigenetics that environment plays a large role in the extent to which genes are expressed. That finding gives hope that any adverse tendencies may be overcome.

Findings from another gaggle of studies reveal that 40% of our happiness level can be attributed to our intentional activity and 10% on our circumstances (assuming they’re not truly dire). Focused energy around attitudes and daily actions pays greater dividends in happiness than undue striving for the best body, face, career, house, car, partner, et al. It’s all about what we do and how we think.

Lyubomirsky and her team have identified 12 concrete strategies that have been shown to elevate happiness when practiced consistently. They are:

  1. Express gratitude.
  2. Cultivate optimism.
  3. Avoid overthinking and social comparison.
  4. Practice acts of kindness.
  5. Nurture relationship.
  6. Develop coping strategies.
  7. Learn to forgive.
  8. Pursue engaging activities.
  9. Savor life’s joys.
  10. Commit to goals.
  11. Practice religion or spirituality.
  12. Take care of your body.

I’ll go into these strategies in more detail in subsequent posts. Suffice it to say that happiness-building is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Some of these strategies will feel more natural, enjoyable, and/or valuable than others. Some will more readily adapt into one’s lifestyle and/or strengths. And some may grow stale with repeat use. The author encourages experimentation to see what works and suggests mixing things up regularly to keep the enterprise fresh and interesting.


1 Social scientists refer to our tendency to become acclimated to changes in circumstances as hedonic adaptation. While we might get really excited in the immediate aftermath of a favorable windfall, our happiness thereafter typically reverts to the previous set point. Mercifully, this mechanism works to our favor in the wake of unfortunate events.