Happiness 101 (previously published as When Likes Aren't Enough)

Simple Secrets to Smart Living & Well-Being


By Tim Bono, PhD

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$15.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 13, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Are you as authentically happy as your social media profiles make it seem?

When a group of researchers asked young adults around the globe what their number one priority was in life, the top answer was “happiness.” Not success, fame, money, looks, or love…but happiness. For a rising generation of young adults raised as digital natives in a fast-paced, ultra-connected world, authentic happiness still seems just out of reach. While social media often shows well-lit selfies and flawless digital personas, today’s 16- to 25-year-olds are struggling to find real meaning, connection, and satisfaction right alongside their overburdened parents.

An Introduction to Happiness tackles the ever-popular subject of happiness and well-being, but reframes it for a younger reader struggling with Instagram envy and high-stakes testing, college rejections and helicopter parents. Professor of positive psychology Dr. Tim Bono distills his most popular college course on the science of happiness into creative, often counterintuitive, strategies for young adults to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Filled with exciting research, practical exercises, honest advice, and quotes and stories from young adults themselves, An Introduction to Happiness is a master class for a generation looking for science-based, real world ways to feel just a little bit happier every day.



Shortly after I began writing this book I was having dinner with my friend James, who asked me what had inspired this project. I told him that I was writing this book to myself—the young adult version of myself—to share the information I wish I had known in my late teens and early twenties. My transition to adulthood, I confessed, had been marked by anxiety, loneliness, and yearning. James was quick to empathize. His early adult years had been emotionally turbulent too. We’d both wrestled with heavy feelings of unhappiness, surrounded by friends who seemingly didn’t. It wasn’t until I’d hit my midtwenties that I started to gain some insight into the nature of these experiences and feelings—and then only because I’d set out on a career in psychology. Through my studies I eventually learned that these struggles and emotions are common in young adulthood—I hadn’t been alone. And there were strategies available that could break open hope, optimism, and meaning in my life. I just hadn’t had access to them. Neither had James.

Allow me to set the stage. I come from a large Italian family. Well, that’s redundant. I come from an Italian family. I am one of seventy-five cousins just on my dad’s side. With so many relatives, we gather just about every week to celebrate someone’s birthday, graduation, or wedding. I have seen most of that extended family regularly throughout my life. We have a lot in common in the way of culture and traditions. But beyond our Mediterranean facial features and love for spedini and cannoli, there is a large variability in personalities and emotional states—something I noticed even as a little kid. Some of my relatives are as kind, funny, and friendly as can be, like my Grandma Rosie, whose name matches her cheery disposition. She couldn’t make it to the mailbox without greeting everyone she saw on the street with a smile and a wish for a beautiful day. Others (who shall remain nameless out of fear of Mafia retaliation) are as sad, downhearted, and bitter as you can imagine, including a few who spent their entire lives clinging to decades-old grudges, ultimately estranging themselves from the family altogether. “Oh, woe is me” was their constant refrain.

Though I had a mostly happy childhood, I seemed to fluctuate between the cheery dispositions of some family members and the melancholy of others. As I made my way into my late teens and early twenties, I found the ratio shifting, my emotions becoming dominated by despair. If I had an exam coming up, I would worry nonstop. If someone angered me, I could not let it go. If I didn’t have plans on a Friday night, I would wallow in self-pity. When I considered how emotions like mine affected some of my family members—the “Woe is me” types—I became resolved to halt the sweeping negativity that was invading my thinking and decision making. I didn’t want to live my entire life like that. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, could be done, but I at least had to find out if there was something that might turn things around.

From my undergraduate psychology coursework, I understood that emotion and behavior are partly determined by genetics. Considering how glum some of my relatives were, I recognized that some of my unhappiness may have been built into my DNA. However, my courses also taught me that genes do not determine our destiny. Our intentional behaviors and daily habits—the parts of our life that we choose and control—can interact with those genes to suppress or enhance their natural expression. This gave me hope. Perhaps I could find a way to quiet my gloomy thoughts and increase my happiness, even with the limitations I inherited genetically. This became my Holy Grail during my twenties.

My personal quest aligned perfectly with my professional aspirations. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology at the time, which provided access to a wealth of science and the scholars in the field who could guide my inquiry. I started work toward my PhD when positive psychology, a field dedicated to the understanding and enhancement of positive emotions, was still new. In addition to satisfying the requirements for my degree, I used graduate school as a veritable sandbox. I dug my hands into as much research as I could find on the nature of human emotion and what scientists had discovered about ways to maximize positivity and psychological health in young adulthood. I gathered information with my younger self in mind, always asking questions, always pushing to identify those points of choice—where our intentions can override our genetics or circumstances.

My research provided a framework both for my own personal exploration and for the courses I began teaching shortly thereafter at Washington University in St. Louis. To answer my friend James’s question, that research is ultimately what motivates this book.

In 2008 I began teaching a course called The Psychology of Young Adulthood, which has enrolled between one hundred and two hundred incoming freshmen each fall ever since. As part of the course, the students complete weekly surveys in which they report what it was like to be a college freshman that week. They answer questions about their overall happiness and stress levels and tell me about the best and worst things that happen. They report how much time they spend in the library, how often they exercise, how often they get sick, and whether they feel socially connected. About eighty questions altogether gauge every aspect of how they are thinking, feeling, and behaving during each week of their transition to adulthood.

The sheer volume of data I have collected over the years has allowed me to see which variables are most closely related. Not surprisingly, more studying means better grades, and better sleep means more happiness. But not all the findings have been so intuitive. The first year I taught this class I gave special attention to how much time students spent on social media. Facebook had been on the scene for only a few years at that point, and I wanted to see how it was impacting their lives. By 2008 nearly all of the students had an account, and they were using it to organize social events, share funny videos, and peer into the lives of all the “friends” they had amassed, even those they had never actually met. One of my students called it a “miracle website” for letting him stay connected with friends from high school who had scattered all across the United States for college. The amount of time they spent maintaining their social media presence must offer a payout, I thought. With this much social connection at their fingertips, and given how much time many of them were spending on it, I assumed Mark Zuckerberg had blessed young adults everywhere with the gift of happiness.

That was, until I looked at their data.

The more time students reported spending on Facebook, the worse off they were in nearly every other aspect of their lives. Their efforts crafting perfectly manicured lives for the world to see were not only unproductive, they were actually counterproductive for their happiness. More time on social media was associated with lower self-esteem, less optimism about the week ahead, less sleep, more homesickness, and less motivation. The single strongest correlate was the most ironic of all: less connectedness to others. That’s right, the more time they spent on the “miracle website” allowing them to read daily updates and live vicariously through pictures of friends and family around the world, the less socially connected they felt to actual people.

Instagram only made the problem worse. The Washington Post recently published the story of a teenager who carefully monitors not only which pictures she posts for her hundreds of followers to admire, but also how many likes each photo gets.1 Those photos without at least a hundred likes she deletes altogether. She has even established a system of earning likes from others by making comments on their pictures. That’s assuming they stay on her good side. As the ultimate form of revenge, she might un-like another’s photo to show her disdain. What started as a means of connection has evolved into a machine for competition. Social media has become a social charade.

So if accumulating likes isn’t the answer to finding sustainable happiness, where else is a young adult to turn? Reading the weekly survey responses from my Psychology of Young Adulthood course over the years has taught me a lot about the ups and downs young adults encounter as they navigate relationships, establish their independence and sense of self, and attempt to craft lives of meaning and purpose. I used what I learned from those weekly surveys to inform the topics I selected for my Positive Psychology course, which I began teaching a few years later. Since social media wasn’t the solution, I wanted to offer students an opportunity to see what science had discovered about the strategies and behaviors that actually could bring about the happiness they were seeking.

I initially designed the Positive Psychology course to be a fifteen-person seminar. The student response has since been overwhelming. It has become the largest course in the Psychology Department each semester it is offered. The largest classroom I can use on campus allows seating for three hundred, which still doesn’t meet the demand. A few years ago, an administrator from the IT department e-mailed me about an observation he’d made while perusing waiting-list numbers for courses throughout the university:


I was looking at waitlist counts and saw yours. Positive Psychology is the #1 waitlist class by a pretty hefty margin. The irony is pretty funny (at least from a distance).


He attached a screenshot of my course’s listing showing a waiting list in the triple digits. Similar trends occur with college classes on happiness nationwide. At UC Berkeley the waiting list for the course often grows to twice the number of seats available. At Harvard the course had to be relocated from a standard classroom to a campus theater to accommodate the eight hundred students looking to understand the psychology of well-being. And of those who enroll (at least at my own institution), few are looking just to fulfill degree requirements. Engineering, art history, architecture, finance, and English literature majors are just as common as students studying psychology. The demand for a class on happiness, though “ironic” from the perspective of Jason, my IT administrator, reflects what research on college students around the world, including findings from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, points to: young adults are yearning for well-being, and they want evidence-based solutions that they can realistically incorporate into their lives. The thousands of students who have passed through my lecture hall over the last decade have been interested in the same thing I spent my twenties grappling with: the pursuit of happiness.

What you will read in the pages that follow is what I wish I had known in my early adult years—and what I am very glad I have been able to incorporate into my life since then. I have been honored to share the science of positive psychology with young adults I have taught and advised over the years. This book shows how they have translated this information into practical strategies in their own lives. I hope it can help you do the same.

The Holy Grail of Young Adulthood

The student center was packed. It was a Tuesday night in the middle of the semester. Were free puppies being given away? Had political activists occupied the commons? No—a speaker was scheduled to talk about “Living a Life of Joy.” It was part of a week of programming sponsored by the junior class to promote health and well-being for students in the throes of midterms. Not a slice of free pizza to be seen anywhere, and yet tons of students had turned out.

The event organizers invited me to say a few words about my own research on happiness to kick off the lecture. After delivering my remarks, I took a seat in the front row, eager to hear what the headliner would have to say. Within just a few minutes, I was floored. But probably not for the reasons the speaker had intended. She began her presentation with a series of lofty promises: The power to create personal happiness was ours alone. Unending joy was in our reach. It would be possible for us never to have a bad day. Ever again. For the rest of our lives. With each statement my eyes widened almost as much as my disbelief. I was waiting for her to start waving a wand of holly and phoenix feather.

It’s evident why her presentation attracted such a crowd. College students want to be happy. Happiness, it seems, is their Holy Grail. This quest has apparently replaced the medieval quests for wealth and everlasting life. Nowadays, many in their late teens and early twenties just want to feel better. Some turn to speakers like the one who visited my campus and promised the secret solution to permanent happiness. But not even the most powerful wizard can cast that spell.


Within the first decade of the twenty-first century, enrollment at American colleges and universities increased a whopping 24 percent, from 16.6 million in 2002 to 20.6 million in 2012.1 Why are young adults flocking to the experience? Sure, college opens doors to opportunities that might otherwise not be available—students take courses that will enlighten their minds, develop strong work ethics, and prepare them for careers. But that’s not all that young adults are after. There’s actually something that young adults want even more during these formative years—and that something else turns out to be happiness. Several years ago, a team of scientists asked nearly ten thousand students in forty-seven countries around the world what they valued most in life. Happiness received the top score, beating out love, money, health, and getting into heaven.2

And college, they are told, is the place to find it. Somewhere in the ivory tower is the key. As comedian David Wood once said, “College is the best four years of your life. When else are your parents going to spend several thousand dollars a year just for you to go to a strange town and get drunk every night?”

The message of college as “the best four years” has been propagated ad nauseam by American culture, including television, college survival books, and of course Hollywood. By some estimates, over the last century there have been nearly seven hundred professionally produced movies depicting some aspect of college life.3 Of course, those movies aren’t in the business of telling the whole truth. As sociologist John Conklin, a professor at Tufts University, notes in his book Campus Life in the Movies: A Critical Survey from the Silent Era to the Present, “Because the Hollywood dream factory exists to make money, and profits depend on entertaining the public, it isn’t surprising that movies about college life dwell on the fun students have rather than the coursework they do.”4 Viewers of movies like Animal House, Van Wilder, Old School, and Neighbors (the list goes on and on) spend a lot more time following the main characters toss Frisbees in the quad, set up kegs for fraternity parties, and entertain romantic interests than watching them study, write papers, or take other steps toward fulfilling their degree requirements—never mind struggle with their mental health. These movies, according to Conklin, have seeped into the culture and dramatically affected the expectations young people develop about the college years and their transition to young adulthood.

The reality, however, can be hard to adjust to—especially as young adults enter college on a quest for the Holy Grail of happiness. What happens when “the best four years” are actually harder than they seem in the movies?

In much the same way that college enrollments have dramatically increased over the last few decades, so too has the proportion of students suffering from mental illness. Some have declared that we are in the midst of a college student mental health crisis. From all directions data are emerging, depicting a sobering scene:

• One in three young adults has experienced prolonged periods of depression.

• One in two rate their mental health below average or poor.5

• College students were five times as likely to score above the cutoffs for psychopathology in the early 2000s than they were in the middle part of the twentieth century.6

• From 2007 to 2015 the suicide rate for teenagers increased 31 percent for boys and more than doubled for girls.7

The psychological distress plaguing ever-increasing numbers of young adults each year is undermining progress toward their goals. A recent survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that, among students who withdraw from college, nearly two-thirds say they dropped out due to their mental health.

Professionals within higher education are responding. Many institutions have increased the number of mental health counselors available in the student health center and made the accommodations at disability resource centers more robust. Still, the same survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that only half of students with a mental health diagnosis disclose their condition to their college.8

Whether or not they are reporting it—and whether or not they themselves are experiencing it—young adults today are feeling distress at levels never seen before. As it turns out, “the best four years” can involve navigating a lot more than cultural rites of passage like keg parties, first loves, and the freshman fifteen. But young adults are also reaching out. Whether it’s attending a lecture on “Living a Life of Joy,” buying books, reading articles, or signing up in droves for a nonrequired class on happiness, young adults are interested in understanding psychological health, be it for themselves or out of concern for friends, classmates, or roommates. This could explain the popularity of a psychology major at most colleges and universities today, as well as the explosion of the self-help movement. It could also explain why a trend within psychology has generated interest and enthusiasm unlike any of its other subdisciplines: positive psychology.


Over the last two decades, researchers in the field of positive psychology have embarked on a quest to understand and develop strategies for getting happier. This development in psychology came in response to the overwhelming attention the field had previously paid to providing therapy for people in distress. All of that research was important—studies investigating depression, anxiety, and fear allowed educators and clinicians to offer effective solutions to the many afflicted. However, the president of the American Psychological Association declared a call to action in the late 1990s: In addition to addressing pathology, we should also understand positivity. It wasn’t enough just to fix what went wrong with a person; it was just as important to use the field’s understanding of human emotion to bring people to a truly flourishing life.

By the early 2000s, positive psychology had received prominent coverage in widespread media outlets including Time, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times Magazine, PBS, and the BBC. Hundreds of scientific articles have since been published, advancing our understanding of the nature of happiness and how it can be increased.

Scientists weren’t the only ones sharing what they knew. An even larger number of self-help gurus, journalists, and motivational speakers appeared on the scene to educate the masses. A search for happiness books on Amazon yields hundreds of returns. This overabundance of ideas on the topic makes it difficult to know which sources can be trusted and are actually useful to young adults specifically. The advantage of looking to positive psychology is that its large body of research has been conducted primarily on young adults themselves. Its ideas are based not on magic or intuition, but on systematic observations and empirically supported conclusions that have withstood rigorous scientific testing. Positive psychology offers sound evidence that can be applied toward increasing well-being today and many years into the future.


Before we jump into the how of getting happier, it’s important to first understand a few things about the nature of happiness and its pursuit. After all, as the science of happiness has grown, so too have misconceptions about it and criticisms of it. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article asking, “Is Happiness Overrated?”9 A year later USA Today published an apparent response, “Final Word: Happiness Is Overrated. You Can Bank on It.”10 Books on the topic are just as snide. Consider Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?11 Or Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.12 Apparently you can’t be both happy and normal.

These books and articles are rooted in the same misconceptions that led the guest speaker on campus to tell us it was possible to never have a bad day again. They treat happiness as if it were a sacred chalice being sought by the knights of King Arthur, a remedy for all our ills and maladies. Though well intentioned, these commenters are not taking into account two important premises at the foundation of positive psychology. Let’s address each of them now, to separate the science from the supernatural.

Premise #1: Positive Psychology Is Not about Being Happy All the Time

Many people believe that the goal of positive psychology is pure, uninterrupted, everlasting happiness. Even an article recently published by the National Post equated positive psychology with “the notion that a perpetually upbeat outlook is entirely possible once we rid our ‘thought patterns’ of all things negative and ugly.”13 In reality, no credible source in the field will tell you that. Scientists have studied thousands of people from all walks of life, and we have yet to find anyone who is happy all the time. It is not something we expect to find, either.

Research from the lab of Dr. Randy Larsen, one of the field’s leading experts, confirms that negativity is part of life. He has collected data on thousands of college students along the full range of psychological health: those in the depths of despair all the way up to those at the pinnacle of joy. The average psychologically healthy young adult experiences positivity about 70 percent of the time. If you think back to your last ten days, and three of them were neutral or unpleasant, you’re actually doing pretty well. Even the happiest students, he finds, aren’t happy all the time. They are happy only about 90 percent of the time. So even if you are at the top of the happiness pack, at least one day of the last ten probably left you feeling down.

Aspiring to a life free of any hardship is not only unrealistic, it could also backfire, as one of my students learned:

“I’ve personally struggled with depression most of my life, but during my sophomore year in college, I hit rock bottom. For years I had busied myself taking hard courses, competing in piano, and overcommitting in clubs and in my social life to avoid how I felt. I didn’t realize that running away from my painful emotions would only make them come back that much stronger.”

This student’s experience is explained by a phenomenon psychologists call the rebound effect. As an illustration, think about your favorite animal. Develop a vivid representation in your mind of the animal’s shape, size, and color. What kind of food does it eat? Where does it live? I forgot to mention one rule: the animal cannot be a polar bear. It can be anything except one of those cute white polar bears with soft fur and black round eyes, perched atop an iceberg waiting to dive into the water. Don’t think about that polar bear.

Whether you were thinking of a polar bear when you began reading the last paragraph or not, you are thinking about one now. The act of trying not to think about something causes the thought to “rebound,” making us think about it even more than we otherwise would have. The same happens with our emotions. When we have a bad day, the act of trying not to feel bad can make us feel even worse. Instead, a healthier approach is to implement strategies that manage our angst productively. As we will see later in chapter 9, putting our emotions into language by talking things over with a friend or writing them out allows us to gain new insight into our experiences and speed our recovery.

We have evolved a complex set of human emotions for a reason. Positive and negative emotions both serve important functions. Feeling afraid or anxious alerts us to parts of our environment or life that we may need to modify—they can act as an internal alarm system. Think about the last time you had a cough. It was most likely unpleasant, but it was probably improving your overall physical health: the act of coughing is a natural mechanism that helps to break apart noxious matter and send it on its way so that it won’t cause further harm. Psychologically, negative emotions operate in a similar way. They can prompt us to reflect on those aspects of life that may be driving our anxiety or despair, and lead us to make changes.

Of course, negative emotions can sometimes become so severe in frequency and intensity that they render people unable to carry out their normal daily tasks. Certainly in those cases—when negative emotions become disordered—it is important to treat them with clinical interventions. But a case of the blues, a moment of anxiety, or a flash of anger may actually be providing useful information, a signal that something needs to change. One of the most common myths about positive psychology—be it found in books, news articles, or keynote speeches delivered to packed auditoriums of college students—is that the field has found a secret way to be happy all the time. That’s simply not true. Bad days are part of being human. Rather, it’s about minimizing the negative impact of bad days, and capitalizing on the positive impact of good days.

When people hear about this first premise—that it’s not about being happy all the time—they are usually relieved. If you’ve had a bad day, it is because you are human. But when people hear about the second premise, they are often puzzled—at least initially.

Premise #2: Positive Psychology Is Not Even about Being Happy

When I ask my students what motivated them to enroll in my Positive Psychology course, one of the most common responses I hear is that they want to be happy. They want to know what major they need to pursue, what kind of romantic partner they need to find, and how much money they need to make one day to be happy. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of bad news. The course is not designed to make them happy.


  • "This is one of the best books I've read that offers practical solutions for the mental health crisis. This should be required reading not only for students and higher education professionals, but for anyone who is interested in adopting healthier habits in their own lives. A must read!"
    Dr. Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education
  • "There are so many things to pull out of this book even beyond strategies to achieve happiness-Bono shows readers how they can make many choices that lead to a healthier lifestyle overall. His students' stories powerfully bring the research into practice."
    Dr. Beth Lingren Clark, assistant dean and director of first-year programs at University of Minnesota

On Sale
Mar 13, 2018
Page Count
272 pages

Tim Bono, PhD

About the Author

Tim Bono, PhD is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He has won several teaching awards and thousands of students have taken his popular courses on the Psychology of Young Adulthood and the Science of Happiness. He is an expert consultant on psychological health and happiness for a number of national media outlets, including CNN, Fast Company, The Associated Press, and several public radio stations. He is the author of Happiness 101 and When Likes Aren’t Enough.

Learn more about this author