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

  • Share
  • Read Later
TIME Magazine Cover, July 8-15, 2013
Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

Earlier this year, neuroscientist Sylvia Morelli of Stanford University and psychologist Matt Lieberman of UCLA used fMRIs to study how empathically people responded when they were looking at happy or sad images of other people. Empathic experiences are good proxies for personal ones because there’s a lot of overlap in the regions of the brain in which they’re processed; this is why sympathetic pain can make you squirm even though you haven’t been injured and joy at a loved one’s success can make you feel as if you succeeded too.

In Morelli and Lieberman’s study, the volunteers looked at the pictures either when they were free to focus on them completely or when they were trying to memorize an eight-digit number the researchers had assigned them. Consistently, the people operating under that so-called cognitive load showed reduced empathy reactions, with neural activity down across four different brain regions. People with uncluttered brains processed — and felt — things more deeply. “Being distracted reduces our empathy for others and blunts responses in the brain,” says Morelli. “So it’s possible that being distracted may also reduce our own happiness.” Memorizing an eight-digit number is hardly something you do every day, but juggling e-mails, meeting deadlines and worrying about the next round of layoffs is, and that takes its toll.

(GRAPHIC: The Game of Happiness)

Get Rich, Get Happy
If tension is making us miserable, snuffing out all the good work our happy genes do, we’ve learned that one balm can fix it all: money. Never mind what you’ve been taught to the contrary, money can indeed buy happiness, at least in certain circumstances. It was in 1974 that University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin first formulated his eponymous (and soon ubiquitous) Easterlin Paradox, which held that there is a threshold beyond which increases in income produce no commensurate increase in subjective well-being. Once basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are met, we simply reach a satiation point. For a lot of people, this never met the plausibility test, and for Americans in particular, who have always been unembarrassedly O.K. with the goal of getting rich, who delighted in a movie in which a character flatly announced that greed is good, the satiation idea was especially troubling.

Turns out we were right. The Easterlin Paradox held sway only until other researchers began poking at it, using longer-term data sets, testing them across multiple cultures and finding that while happiness may not rise as quickly as income (doubling your salary from $75,000 to $150,000 will not make you twice as happy) there is no such thing as growing numb to money. Indeed, just this April, a study by the Brookings Institution and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan analyzed data from 155 countries and found that not only does subjective well-being rise along with income but in wealthy countries the slope is actually sharper than it is in poorer countries. A 10% bump in a $50,000 income, for example, produces a greater happiness boost than a similar percentage increase in a $10,000 income, even though a little extra money at the lower end of the scale ought to have a more life-improving effect. Rich isn’t just better; it’s much better.

That, at least, is how things shake out at the national and global level. At the individual and community level, it can be much different. If you’re rich, your experiences are not the same as every other rich person’s, and the same is true if you’re poor. “A reporter once asked me, ‘Yes or no, does money make people happy? No scientific waffling, just yes or no,’” says psychologist Edward Diener of the University of Illinois. “I hit Delete.”

A massive study Diener led that was published last December analyzed the responses of 806,526 people in 135 countries collected over the course of six years. It found that income corresponds more or less directly to happiness but only if a person’s wealth and aspirations keep pace. Earning $170,000 per year might put you in the top 5% of American households, but if you’re dreaming of a one-percenter’s lifestyle, you’ll be disappointed. “Money can boost happiness if it allows people to obtain more of the things they need and desire,” says Diener. “But when their desires outpace what they can afford, even rising income can be accompanied by falling feelings of well-being.”

This is particularly problematic in the modern era. A century ago, everybody knew the names of the country’s richest families — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Astors — but they were little more than icons. You never really saw how they lived, which was just fine, since if you did, your little split-level house or sole-proprietor business would start to look pretty shabby. In an era of paparazzi and reality shows, everyone sees everything and almost all of us suffer by comparison with someone.

“Bertrand Russell used to say, ‘Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful,’” says psychologist Cameron Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson studies the difference between socioeconomic status — a purely arithmetical measure of how much money you make — and sociometric status, which is a measure of how well you compare with the people around you. Before the beggar could see the millionaire, those distinctions were easier to draw. Now the silos have been blown up or at least made transparent, a process that has accelerated dramatically in the era of social media.

#TIMEHappinessInstagram What Makes You Happy

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4

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:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,122 other followers