Worried about how to succeed in life? Don't
worry, be happy.
That's the take-home message from a major new review
of studies on the downstream benefits of personal happiness.
While everyone knows that successful careers and relationships
make people happy, new research suggests this process
works both ways.
"Perhaps happy people also have a lot of good things
come to them because of their happiness, their
sociability, their energy," said lead author Sonja Lyubomirsky,
a professor of psychology at the University of California,
Her team's 53-page review of more than 225 epidemiological,
longitudinal and experimental studies strongly suggests
that happiness is literally its own reward: That it breeds
success, just as success can breed happiness.
"It's clear that the relationship is bi-directional,"
Lyubomirsky said. "It's an upward spiral."
Reporting in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin,
Lyubomirsky and her colleagues pored over data collected
over the past two decades on more than 275,000 people.
She pointed out that throughout most of its history,
psychology has tended to focus on what goes wrong with
people emotionally -- only recently has it switched that
focus to the exploration of "good" emotions like happiness,
contentment and joy.
"It's a trend called 'positive psychology,' " she explained.
"What makes 'the good life,' what makes life fulfilling?"
At first, most of this work on happiness focused on its
origins, Lyubomirsky said. "So, if you had a study and
you saw a correlation between rising income and happiness,
it was immediately interpreted as 'OK, money makes people
While not disputing that rather obvious fact, the California
researcher wondered if success and achievement weren't,
in their own way, encouraged by happiness.
Hundreds of studies appear to support that theory. Some
examples from her team's review:
- In an infant study, babies who smiled and laughed
more developed stronger bonds with their caregivers.
- Mumerous studies showed that happier people tended
to do better on job interviews, secure better jobs,
and then get better job-performance ratings while working.
- Other research showed happier individuals had more
satisfying marriages and were more likely to describe
their partner as their "great love."
- Happy people were also more likely to engage in new,
pleasurable pursuits and "discover rewards in even ordinary,
- Happiness may even improve health: Experimental studies
suggest good mood boosts immune function and reduces
- Other studies suggest happiness helps lengthen lifespan.
But does happiness precede and encourage success? The
evidence for that came primarily from dozens of longitudinal
studies, which tracked changes in people's lives over
One of these studies focused on 30-year-old college yearbook
photos. Researchers assessed each photo for what experts
call "Duchenne smiles" -- a certain play of facial muscles
that only occurs during truly happy, unposed smiles.
"Only very, very good actors can fake them," Lyubomirsky
"In these yearbook studies, women who showed Duchenne
smiles when they were in college had happier marriages
by age 52," she said. In another study, college freshmen
tested as very happy in college made more money 16 years
later, she said. Other longitudinal research mirrored
Why might happy folks be rewarded with success?
According to Lyubomirsky, "they're feeling more confident,
optimistic, more energetic," all of which are attractive
qualities. In fact, studies consistently find that when
people appear happy, total strangers rate them as sexier,
"They're also more sociable, and sociability is really
important," the researcher said. "You get out there, you
like people more. And people are more motivated to work
with, and be friends with, happy people."
The new review should help change psychologists' view
of the happiness/success relationship, said James Maddux,
professor and director of the clinical psychologist training
program at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.
"It pulls all the research together in a very compelling
way," said Maddux, who specializes in the study of "positive
He and Lyubomirsky agreed that "happy" doesn't mean
empty-headed cheerfulness. "The research isn't saying
that happy people are naive Pollyannas, and it's not saying
that being happy is incompatible with -- on occasion --
being critical and cynical, sad or angry," he said. "That's
just part of being a healthy, emotionally well-rounded
More mysterious is why some people -- even as infants
-- are naturally happier than others. DNA is the most
obvious answer. "Based on the research, there's a general
conclusion that between 50 to 70 percent of the variation
in people as to their level of happiness over time is
genetically determined," Maddux said.
That doesn't mean genes are destiny when it comes to
happiness and success, however.
"It just means that the person who's born happy doesn't
have to try as hard -- just like thin people don't have
to work at it as much," Lyubomirsky said. "You can make
yourself happier using all kinds of strategies -- but
you have to put some effort into it."