The Pursuit of Happiness Part 3: Implementing Change and Person-Activity Fit

This is the final part of a 3 part series on the evidence behind sustainable change in happiness.  In this part we’ll look at how these concepts discussed can be put to work to cause a measurable and sustainable happiness increase.  Specifically, how to choose and implement activities.

This is a decent stand alone, but for the most from the post, check out: Part 1 and Part 2

Choosing an Activity: Person-Activity Fit

Every activity will not work for every person.  There is a general “matching hypotheses” showing that positive affects of goal attainment on well-being are enhanced by person-goal fit.  People should choose activities that align with their values and interests.

Sonja Lymbomirsky and Ken Sheldon have developed a diagnostic questionnaire that fits the person to an activity.  You can search for this.  However, I don’t think it’s needed to get started.  Just take a look at the list below and choose something that meets these:

  • aligns with your values
  • you would be motivated to start
  • feels natural
  • enjoyable

Activities considered:

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Cultivating optimism
  • Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
  • Practicing acts of kindness
  • Nurturing social relationships
  • Developing coping strategies
  • Learning to forgive
  • Increasing “flow” experiences
  • Savoring life’s joys
  • Committing to your goals
  • Practicing religion and spiritiousity
  • Taking care of your body

Why choose a specific goal?

There is the problem of the 2 efforts, that is the effort to initiate and the effort to maintain an activity.  The initiation effort is thought to be like a muscle that can only flex so much and gets stronger with use.  To maximize the change that an activity will be started, one should choose appropriately.  The second effort, maintenance, then becomes less difficult as the activity is seen to benefit if chosen properly.  It becomes self-reinforcing and self-sustaining.  Remember, sustainable change is the key here, not a few increased weeks of happiness.

Non-stop Party in the back keeps this guy happy.

Will I Hedonically Adapt to these changes?

The authors assume that hedonic adaptation occurs with respect to specific experiences and not to the decisions that lead to the experience.  Thus, there is a distinction between initiating an activity (the decision) and implementing it (the experience) the same way every time.

For example, I found gratitude to be a good person-fit.  Instead of keeping a written journal daily or even weekly, which bored me when I tried it a few years ago, I just stop every now and again when the mood strikes and pick one thing for which I’m grateful.  Most of the time  it’s a little thing that strikes me.  Sometimes, I’m struck by a big thing, like a truck.

Maybe,   I’ll take a few days and express it in prayer, or I’ll tell someone something for which I’m grateful (this works great on my 4 year old) or write it down on a sticky note to myself that day.  Point is, there is no pattern, just let it happen.  The adaptation comes when we pattern. Avoiding adaptation lies in varying the experience of the activity.

Further research

Positive psychology a relatively new field and as such has more than enough naysayers.  I believe it’s the beginning of one that we will look back on in a few decades and think ” How did we ever thrive without it”.

Much  remains on which activities are best and how to best practice these.  As an example, here are the graphical results of 2 experiments mentioned in the paper measuring the change in well-being over a short (6 week) period based on 2 activities described above.

Top: Acts of kindness
Bottom: Counting one’s blessings

Notice the boost in subjective well-being (happiness) at 6 weeks with these activities compared with controls.  However, also note that timing was everything.  Acts of kindness seemed effective only when performed all on one day.  Perhaps the acts were lost in the shuffle of life when spread out?  Similarly, counting blessing might be boring if done 3 times per week instead of one, explaining the lack of benefit in the bottom graph.

Actionable conclusions

The authors acknowledge much work remains, keep in mind this paper is 10 years old and much work has been done.  However, those interested are encouraged to do the following:

  • Find new activities to engage in, preferably that aligns with your values, you would be motivated to start, would feel natural and enjoyable.
  • Make a habit out of initiating the activity but always vary certain aspects of the experience like timing, frequency etc

Well, this concluded my 3 part series on sustainable change in subjective well-being.  I’ve been using these techniques for a few years and have noticed results.  It becomes second nature.

What is your experience with changing happiness?  

10 Replies to “The Pursuit of Happiness Part 3: Implementing Change and Person-Activity Fit”

  1. Happiness likely comes with practice, but I’m also sure it comes with the practice of not engaging in disappointment. I’m also of the mind it is less volitional than those studies indicate and probably happens at much more subcortical level. I think also it comes with maturity and an understanding of the power you possess and its limitation.

    There was a philosopher that lived in Ephesus in western Turkey in 535 bc. His name was Heraclitus. His philosophy revolved around notion universe is in constant change. His philosophy revolved around opposites being actually he same thing like 2 sides of a coin displaying different perspectives but still it’s the same coin. He also gave us the insight “you never step into the same river twice”, Even though it looks exactly the same, it’s completely different water. If you accept the truth of change as a base line then every time you engage you necessarily engage what’s changed. If you “ignore the change” then you are engaging a delusion.

    My retirement is a very happy time. The purchase of an adequate portfolio means I have near bullet proof security. I put in adequate analysis to completely understand how my portfolio works in a variety of adversities and made contingencies to cover adversity. So what is left is for me to get up every day and engage the change, which is endlessly satisfying.

    I practice many of those listed “actions” but I think those are a natural consequence of not living a delusion. If you practice gratitude, optimism, kindness, forgiveness, what you are doing is aligning yourself to today’s reality as it moves into the future, instead of clinging to “outdated realities”. An example: one day you’re not a father, the next day you are, to which reality do you chose to cling? Which reality is a delusion?

    1. Gasem,
      You think it comes with maturity, older people are happier especially than middle aged people where the u shape of happiness takes a dip from kids Work etc. I know you don’t mean maturity as age only but most of us mentally mature in our later years.

      One of the goals with all the happiness literature stuff is trying to force myself into that maturity. The financial piece is taken care of now I just need to view some aspects of the world like a guy who has been around for a bit. I do it because I see lots of unhappy docs and people in general especially my age.

      While change might be subcritical, we can possibly expedite and or force that change by engaging in these activities. It’s not like they are the exclusive domain of positive psychology. List the bullet points on most and religious blog and they will fit right in. I do think person-activity fit is intriguing though. I won’t practice all of these, not great anyway, so I choose to become good at a few that fit me.

      What you call “engaging the change” is what my post describes as varying the experience to avoid hedonic adaptation. Seems like we both accomplishing the same goal.

      Glad you tie in into financial security. This pursuit of happiness is sort of a leisure activity. As such, I wouldn’t have much time for it if I was busy being anxious about paychecks, mortgages, job security etc. Money does matter, to a degree. I don’t think one needs to be financially independent or retired to be happy, but having a sound financial plan is a necessary prerequisite for some, me included.

      Wise words as always,

      1. My point regarding subcortical substrate is that the reward is probably unconscious. For example the evidence suggests the reason families develop is because of oxytoxcin and probably prolactin. Oxytocin release as a strong substrate of attraction and bonding, and the release of prolactin which is a strong substrate of satisfaction is probably why a mother just doesn’t abandon her baby shortly after birth. The baby just makes her feel too damn good. I think happiness probably has a similar (though not identical) kind of substrate and it’s also predicated on a lack of negative predicates. It’s probably hard to be happy if you’re getting a beating twice a day.

        When I ran my practice I had one immutable rule. If you were going to be part of the group you had to be satisfied with no more than 90% of what you wanted. At the 90% level there developed an esprit de corps among the players and people could work toward common goals aka getting the cases done, covering calls etc. while also having considerable persona l freedom. I found it’s when people start angling for 93% or 94% of getting things “their way”, that heartburn ensues, or if someone was a kingdom maker. As long as we adhered to the mores of 90% people were “happy” in that they weren’t annoyed enough to mutiny, and together we made a lot of money. We were more a “band of the hand” than a monolithic hierarchy. I think a lot of physicians are unhappy because they are hierarchy directed and in competition against people who want 95%

        By maturity I mean as you gain in wisdom it becomes about picking your battles, that is deciding what is worth spending time on and what is a waste of time. Example watching “the news” The news isn’t about news it’s about selling “my pillows” and “mesothelioma settlements”. A sensational narrative is cooked up as “today’s news” and played over and over to hook you into buying “my pillows”. The chaos of the narrative engenders anxiety and disease. IS CHINESE SPACE JUNK GONNA TAKE YOU OUT????? I’ve read experiences of several psychologists/therapists who have seen people suffering anxiety over Trump and universally the therapeutic advice was “TURN OFF THE TV!” I’m sure the cyclic dopamine hit and withdrawal of Facebook is similar, or checking your Bitcoin account 50x per day. How much of your happiness are you selling by engaging in situations that are designed to change your biochemistry in a way that precludes feeling happy?

        1. Your 90% rule is interesting, I’ve not thought of it that way. I know I’m guilty of wanting it all in some aspects of life. I’ve been more laissez fair since having kids, it’s helped keep the heartburn down. I agree that Physicians tend to want it all. Maybe as a group and even society having 90% ain’t bad. Diminishing returns in action.

          Agree with the news bit too. I like to be informed but television is sensationalized. I prefer print, trusted blogs and blog commenters. Keep em coming.

  2. Hello GLMD,

    As I have gotten older, I am certainly more interested in doing many of the things you suggested above. I have been fortunate that I am a happy individual. I am more a person who is happy with just not experiencing the bad stuff. So being grateful has been a part of my life for as long as I can recall.

    1. Dr MB,
      You echo what Gasem says above about age and happiness. Also seems like you might have a higher than average happiness set point (see part 1 of the happiness series). That’s good for you and your kids, as it seems genetic.

      I am more average happiness set point but not “prone to melancholy” as some describe themselves, like Abraham Lincoln for example. I use my 40% changeable happiness to my advantage when possible.


  3. Happiness seems so short term. After joy here, which seems in light with your sustained idea.

    Things that have fit this for me include:
    1) church and my faith
    2) exercising regularly… Had to cut back three times per week though as I was starting to wear out at 5
    3) blogging. Stick to a three day a week schedule. Helps hold me accountable and also serves as an outlet for me to get my thoughts out.

    I like the the idea of sustained happiness (or joy) through life style changes and not just a short term fix (which seems more like the typical American way).

    FYI. Shared this, but it didn’t have your Twitter handle on it to tag you.


    1. TPP,

      Joy is the right word. The literature calls it sustained happiness. You bullet points are in line with the activities described and seem like they are chosen because you enjoy and value them rather than because someone or some book said you should. That’s the key.
      I would say religion is important for me too. It covers multiple activities listed and the list itself could be religious in some ways.
      Blogging does work right? I’ve found the same thing. I think it’s because it resists adaptation by changing constantly.
      Thanks for the twitter handle info. I’m working on the social media part. I’ve got a Facebook page but haven’t linked yet.
      Btw I’m in for your course, the 101 course. Not for the knowledge but for the support to you. Great idea and good luck.

      ~ GLMD

      1. Thanks GLMD! I saw that. I just need to get the traffic and the desire for it and I’ll get to work. I might start working on it early to give to my residents where I work for free. Give them a trial run with it for improvements.

        All about bloggers at the same stages supporting each other! Let me know if you ever need anything I can help with.

        1. If you want to offload some of the work I might be able to help. We have a big move coming up but if you catch me in a few months we’ll see. Reviewing the basics is good and I have a few talks for students already prepped so it wouldn’t be hard.

          We can talk specifics later if it gets to that point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *