The Happiness of Pursuit

Americans are free to chase happiness, but too few of us actually achieve it. The answer is in knowing how—and where to look

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TIME Magazine Cover, July 8-15, 2013
Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

The gap between our optimistic expectations and the reality that a significant portion of the population is, of late, cranky and dissatisfied may be what has spawned the vast happiness industry. We tap that industry in a lot of ways — with pills (the TIME poll found that 25% of American women and 5% of men say they are taking antidepressants), with food (48% of women and 44% of men admit to eating to improve their mood, contributing to the U.S. obesity epidemic), with self-improvement products and services (including books, audiobooks and seminars, self-improvement is a $10 billion-a-year industry, about the same as Hollywood), with borrowed wisdom (there are 5,000 motivational speakers in the U.S., earning a collective $1 billion per year). The pursuit of happiness, once an ideal, has become a big business but not an especially effective one; plenty of other countries are doing a lot better than we are without trying so hard. According to the 2012 World Happiness Report, published by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, the U.S. ranks 23rd on a 50-country happiness index, far behind No. 1 Iceland, No. 2 New Zealand and No. 3 Denmark and trailing Singapore, Malaysia, Tanzania and Vietnam.

If you’re part of the demographic pursuing joy or just trying to quell some psychic angst, none of this is a surprise to you, nor is the way happiness is now being merchandised, since you may have spent more than your share of disposable income on meditation or yoga classes, life coaching or happiness apps. Part of the solution, however, may lie not in a product or a program but simply in a better understanding of the particular way Americans define happiness in the first place. There are answers to be found in our genes, in our collective psyche, in the workings of our brain. If it was possible for our ancestors to be happy on the prairie, it ought to be possible for us to be happy in our jobs, our families, our communities. We’ve got all the toys; now we need to relocate the joy, to tap into the propensities that allow us to take pleasure in striving — in, if you will, the pursuit.

The Biology of Happy
The familiar notion that the descendants of immigrants, whether they arrived from old Europe 300 years ago or Asia last year, are heirs to a genetically optimistic temperament makes intuitive sense. But it also makes us uneasy, and it should. That way lies a belief in a sort of breedable, biological specialness — an exceptionalism we accept when it’s preceded by the word American but that spooks us when the word is Russian or Chinese or Japanese.

That said, simple biology — evident since Gregor Mendel started breeding his pea plants in the 19th century — dictates that the random mix of genetic traits within any one population will be amplified when that population starts breeding. That ought to be true for so-called immigrant genes too, and in 2011, that idea got a big boost when investigators at Harvard and Boston University analyzed a gene dubbed DRD4, which is associated with activity in the brain’s dopamine receptors. The gene comes in several forms, or alleles. Of the three most common, one codes for even-temperedness and reflection, while the other two code for exploratory and impulsive behavior, as well as a taste for risk taking and a tolerance of novelty.

When the investigators looked at the frequency of the different alleles in people around the world, they found that the farther along the migration route from Africa, the cradle of us all, through central Asia, Europe and the New World, the likelier people were to carry the two novelty-seeking alleles. Studies of another gene called 5-HTTLPR, related to serotonin transport, have yielded similar findings. The allele of that gene that codes for anxiety and risk avoidance is less common in individualistic cultures like that of the U.S.

If genes play a role in shaping immigrant temperament, they do so in a subtle way. Serotonin and dopamine are often, simplistically, thought of as feel-good neurotransmitters. The more you have of them, the happier you are. But in the case of immigrants at least, the power of the chemicals is that they regulate what researchers straightforwardly call search activity — forward-looking behavior that often occurs in pursuit of a specific goal. Search activity simply feels good — a fact that helps explain why shopping for something is often more fun than buying it, hunting can be more enjoyable than actually bagging your prey, and so many politicians appear to have a better time running for office than holding it.

What’s more, explains Dr. Vadim Rotenberg, a psychiatrist and psychophysiologist at Tel Aviv University, the feel-good search experience can stimulate people to continue pursuing a goal even when they’re having trouble achieving it. That’s as good an explanation for immigrant persistence as there ever was. So how does a brain bred for the joy of pursuit react to stress and a climate of near constant distractions — both grindingly consistent features of the postindustrial world?

At the neurological level, happiness is a very complex thing, and lots can go wrong. Studies of the brain conducted with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) show varying levels of happiness-related activity in the left prefrontal cortex and the more primitive basal ganglia, which form part of the reward loop; the amygdala, which processes a range of basic emotions; the septal area, which is involved in the experience of empathy; and the anterior insula, which helps focus our attention on the things that are making us happy in the first place.

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Happiness isn't the same thing as fun and joy.

Fun, joy, and other pleasurable experiences are temporary. You want them to be or else you'll become adapted just like a drug addict who needs a stronger dose to get the same feeling.

Happiness is something else, a more even, everyday state. Here's how I define it:

Happiness is when your life fulfills your needs.

The tricky bit is figuring out exactly what your needs are. New cars, bigger homes, and the hot new shoes aren't going to do it. Those are the quick fix of pleasure, just one part of your needs.

Drawn from the research emerging from positive psychology, evolutionary psychology, fMRI studies of happy people, and the common sense wisdom from the ages, I've identified 9 categories of needs that go by the easy to remember acronym WE PROMISE.

Your essential needs for happiness all fall into these categories: Wellbeing, Environment, Pleasure, Relationships, Outlook, Meaning, Involvement, Success, and Elasticity.

The fastest route to happiness is when you work to fulfill you top needs, those which are both most important to you and which you are farthest from reaching.

It's the act of working to fulfill your needs that is the happiness you seek.

Kenneth Benjamin
Founder and Chief Happiness Officer
Happiness International


Happiness, it seems to me, is both more difficult and easier to attain in the modern age.

As educated people, Americans and Europeans are expected to know all the 'basics' ... such as the fact that money can't/doesn't buy you happiness. And yet survey after survey seem to point to the fact that people in less developed nations such as India tend to be happier.

What gives? I think the difference lies in what one's life goals are, what one is striving for, what one chooses to measure one's life by. The 'BIG' "Meaning of Life" question.

We take our cues from our parents, family, society, surroundings, and so on. The horizons of someone who lives in a village in India or China is limited. He/She sees folks grow up, pursue the same activities as his or her parents, then get married and have kids and slowly grow old. The cycle of life tends to repeat itself. The 'desires' tend to be basic and simple and easily obtained. Hence, happiness and contentment are easy to attain.

The modern world has turned everything into a mess. We are bombarded with endless information, endless temptations, endless possibilities. We do not know where to draw the limit. For the new middle class in India, buying a small car costing $8,000 may be a major life achievement leading to much contentment and wide celebration. For Americans, a $30,000 sedan may be a 'basic necessity' rather than a luxury.

How 'big' a house is enough? 500 sq. ft.? 1,500 sq. ft.? At least a 3-bedroom suburban home with a garden and picket fences?

What about traveling the world and vacationing and honeymoons? How many kids must one contribute to the family and to the world?

The 'items' mentioned above are already more than enough to keep most men and women busy through their lives. And I have not even talked about the multitude of choices we are faced with that makes compatibility less likely.

One of the key factors that impacts how happy or otherwise we are in life has to do with the relationships we have in our lives. In traditional societies, there really is not much of a choice. These relationships are automatically decided for you before you are born. You live in the house that your forefathers have built and till the land that belongs to the forefathers. You spend entire lifetimes with your parents and probably live to see your own kids grow up and have their own kids in turn. This is not necessarily an endearing prospect.

People in developed nations have managed to get out of this vicious circle. They leave home pretty much permanently when they leave for college. They choose their own life partners. And those 'life' partners do not even have to be for life. This is all good. It's my conviction that with the proliferation of choices we have, it is going to be more and more difficult to find a 'partner' who is exactly like us. This already leads to much heartburn and will continue to do so in the future.

Just consider the possibilities for differences —>>

what food one likes: veg, non-veg, Mexican, Thai, Sushi, Indian

what TV shows one likes: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, The Office, Girls, and so on till infinity

what is one's chosen favorite way of relaxation: working out, cycling, boxing, sleeping till noon, reading a book, tweeting

what is one's attitude towards technology: always connected, tweets from the loo, Apple-fanatic, Linux-head, technophbe

car crazy or a believer in public transport, lover of nature and a warrior for the environment, watches what one eats, cleanliness-freak, etc. etc.

So the choices are endless. As the letters that pour in to advice columnists show, folks are facing many and varied and unprecedented relationship issues which of course explains the proliferation of gurus not the least of whom is Deepak Chopra.

Here's wishing that we will realize that there ARE no lessons to learn; that there is no BIG "Meaning of Life" as such; that if we enjoy reading fiction or non-fiction or enjoy cooking, then that IS the meaning. That IS enough.

I can do no better than to conclude with my favorite words which capture my philosophy of life exquisitely and perfectly:

"There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving — and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness." — Diana Athill


I think the first step to happiness is looking closely at all of the bad things happening in your life, and really thinking about how your own actions or inactions played into them... Then figuring out how not only to fix the problem, but keep it from happening again.  You know people also need to be realistic - and understand where their is a way into a situation > there is a way out... not a way we might like, or an easy way > but one .. nonetheless.

Happiness to me is not about owning. It is simply having the peace of mind that I have food in my cupboards, my bills are paid, I have extra in the bank for emergencies and .. the people I care about - are doing well. To me, what matters most is just knowing I'm handling things, and have learned from past mistakes to not put off the this and that till it snowballs, to watch what I say and do and think about ripples and well.. just be comfortable ... I think that is what most people want - to be.. comfortable and have relaxed moments in their days to share with others.


Basic symbolic interactionism saturates this article...thats the modern "American Way" though. Let's be honest, very few of us are entrepreneurs, philosophers, pioneers, or do anything out of the norm which would qualify as "exceptional". You may very well live in a McMansion and own an expensive Toyota (Lexus), for example...but the reality is that there are thousands just like you. Knowing this is the harbinger of the inherent depression and futility of putting your self-worth and value in the trappings of consumerism.

There are hundreds of millions of "Average Joes" (and Janes) in the "Rat Race". Status symbols "define" you in a shallow, individualistic, materialistic, desk-job culture and society, if you let them. What I am surprised at (but perhaps I am naive to be so, knowing how godless the culture at large is), is that the spiritual aspect was never addressed. You can not be your own god, yet vainly (and I do mean both with vanity and in vain) we try. I will not proselytize in this forum. I will only say that we can start addressing our happiness, or lack thereof, NOT by making and spending more money on "experiences"...these too are fleeting and impossible to sustain, memories are just that. We could stop making idols and "gods" out of other humans (ourselves, celebrities, iconoclasts), events, or things.

Search for God, Jah the Creator, Yahweh, Abba Father. The love of money is the root of all evil.


Happiness is in what you think it makes you happy, hence western societies think that money makes you happy cause it makes this possible.


The first sentence me puzzled - "If you aren't having fun, it just MIGHT be your own fault." Of course it's your own fault - whose fault would it be?!?

Changes_Long 1 Like

We achieved happiness in 2011 by selling our house, quitting our jobs and starting a two-year journey around the world. Not having "stuff" anymore is so liberating. You can read about the adventure at:


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