Software Creation Mystery -

The Happiness. Programmer’s Edition.

Happiness is a direction, not a place. – Sydney J. Harri


Happy programmers are more productive, healthier and live longer. It is pleasure to work with happy programmers. Are you a happy programmer? Do you have feeling of joy and satisfaction every day? Do you want to know how to become happier?

This post considers programmer’s satisfaction with live as a whole (I had another post dedicated to happiness at work).

Programmers as other people are happier if they have

  • more money
  • successful marriage
  • excellent health
  • good friends
  • live in a beautiful place with wonderful weather

But we have what we have. It is not easy to achieve all of this: become rich, find perfect spouse and friends, be completely healthy and move to the best place on the Earth. But the most nasty news is that even after achieving all of this happiness is not guaranteed to last forever.


We face 3 serious obstacles to increase our level of happiness for a long time.

1. Genes / personality – our basic level of happiness significantly depends on our genes and personality and stays almost the same over time. We cannot change much this level. Some of us could be cheerful and joyful in tough times and some will be cranky and frustrated in the best moments of their life.
2. Adaptation – any gains in happiness are only temporary, because humans so quickly adapt to change. After 1 year lottery winners were no happier than before win. U.S. citizens’ personal income has more than doubled in the past 50 years, but their happiness levels have remained the same.
3. Illusions – we often create illusions that replace reality. Our imagination creates pretty pictures about what makes us happy and miss important real life details. We have tough time to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now. We overestimate our future appetite when are hungry or why we desperately need this beautiful iPhone [insert here any gadget of your dream] right now to be happy.

Does it mean that we cannot increase our happiness for a long time? We still have some reasons for optimism


Yes, we have genetically determined set point. Research shows that our genes and personality accounts for 50% of our happiness, which is fixed and almost impossible to change.

But we have other things under our control – our life and what we do.

Many people believe that changing life is the ultimate path to happiness.
Surprisingly, research shows that circumstances of our life (wealth, health, marriage, friends, living place, etc.) accounts for only 10% of happiness. We can change level of our happiness by marriage (risky) or moving to Florida [insert here any place of your dream] (less risky). But how long it will last? Not long because our illusions will quickly fade and adaptation to the new life events will return us back to the basic level. We are similar to pedestrians walking up a descending escalator. You should constantly move to stay above your basic happiness level. Stop and you quickly get back.

What is left for the rest 40% of our happiness?
Intentional Activity – the wide variety of things that people do and think in their daily lives from exercising regularly to achieving important life goals. Illusions are less severe because we constantly get experience. Adaptation is weaker, because we can adjust, don’t spend all time doing one thing and we can vary the same activity and move to the new levels. We can remain happy over long period doing things that we enjoy or that bring meaning in our life.

Think about your software projects. Do they bring you meaningful experience? Do you feel that your work and growth as a programmer could be the source of happiness? You can try moving to another project, change roles and work with other interesting domains and problems to get more satisfaction from work and fight adaptation.

Enjoyment from work comes at very specific point: when our tasks and challenges match our capabilities. Work should be not overwhelmingly complex and not too simple. With these conditions you will enjoy your work and grow quickly.
To be happy at work you should have
1. Control over your task assignments and execution.
2. Environment and time to focus on your tasks.
3. Clear goals and immediate feedback.

Other areas (to achieve flow and happiness from activities):

  • Body: exercises, yoga, sport
  • Mind: learn something new, e.g. science, history, languages (human and programming); blog or build programs for interesting problems (and share them)
  • Feelings: music, art or poetry
  • Social: join study groups and clubs for personal growth (e.g. Toastmasters) or social contribution, volunteer or simply help people.

There are few steps to become happier with your intentional activity.

Important Steps

  1. Match. Find activities that match your strengths, interests and personality. Something that you would really enjoy and find as a good fit and complement to your life.
  2. Start. It is the most important step. We have thousands of real and imaginative reasons why not to start. Our busy lives and habits often stop us. Avoid overcommitment and don’t burn yourself with activities, but don’t hesitate too much – just start it. Who doesn’t try – doesn’t drink champagne
  3. Maintain. Your activities will make you happier if you do them for a long time, make a progress and achieve results. Your activities should make your life interesting, bring enjoyment and satisfaction to keep your new happiness level, otherwise it doesn’t make sense to continue them. However, you could have less enjoyable activities if they move your closer to life goals and make life more meaningful.
  4. Change. You should periodically look for the new activities, evaluate and change existing and even drop less valuable. Your time is precious and you should select what brings you most satisfaction, happiness and meaning in life.

Confucius said: “The one who would be in constant happiness must frequently change.”

So, happiness is combination of two outcomes:

  1. Recent experiences (bottom-up) – people who can recall a large number of recent positive experiences are very happy. Your activities are the great source of these experiences.
  2. Meaning and purpose (top-down) – even suffering, we can be happy and positively re-frame our experiences if we have sense of achieving meaning and purpose in our life. And activities could move you closer to them.

Albert Camus: But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

Life is action. Act and be happy.

Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, David Schkade
How to Be Happy At Work. Short tutorial

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Thanks for your post about my work with Sheldon & Schkade. (I loved the illustrations too!) You may be interested in my recent book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (2008, Penguin Press), which discusses in detail the model you describe, as well as scientifically supported ways that people can become lastingly happier.

–Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.

Comment by Sonja Lyubomirsky | May 28, 2008 10:48 am

Actually I’m not a programmer…But, I find several tips to improve happines in our life. I do believe that whatever we do the result will be different when we do it with happiness and when we don’t. For me, having socialize with other bring big positive emotion. I’ll learn the other ways from this post.

Comment by Ashley | June 2, 2008 11:06 pm

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Pingback by Psychology of Happiness « how to be human (well… sort of) | August 25, 2008 10:50 pm

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