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

If you’re on Facebook, there are more than 1.1 billion other people who can mainline their good times — their new car, their big house, their vacation that you’d have to save 10 years to take — straight into your brain. Half a billion people on Twitter can do the same, a punchy 140 characters at a time. The very setup of social media provides another way to keep score. You’ve got 50 Twitter followers? Great, but your best friend has 500, and Lady Gaga, in case you’re counting, has 38 million. In the TIME poll, 60% of respondents said they do not feel better about themselves after spending time on social media, and 76% believe other people make themselves look happier, more attractive and more successful than they actually are on their Facebook page.

“When it comes to hierarchies, people sort themselves into higher or lower positions,” says Anderson. “There’s a line of research in which you make people feel high or low by imagining themselves with someone above them or below them.” If most of the people in your virtual circle seem better off than you, there’s no imagination necessary.

The irony is that those high-status folks may not feel much better than you, and not only because they too are always being exposed to someone who’s better off than they are. Rather, their sense of well-being may hinge on why they’re buying so many goodies and doing so much posting at all.

In 2012 psychologist Ryan Howell of San Francisco State University conducted a study of nearly 1,000 participants, administering a series of questionnaires about the things they buy, the reasons they buy them and what their level of happiness is. The more a purchase was motivated by an effort to impress other people, the study found, the less of a happiness boost it conferred. While most of us flatter ourselves that we’re above that kind of crassness, consider that every vacation photo you ever posted, every new article of clothing you imagined wearing into the office even as you were paying for it, every new car you bought and parked conspicuously in your driveway instead of invisibly in your garage was motivated by the same look-at-me impulse. In a wealthy culture like ours, there’s a lot of opportunity for that kind of exhibitionistic spending, as well as for the letdown that follows when the happiness never comes.

In those cases, Howell says, “it’s as if your values and what you’re interested in don’t matter. You can think of it as a litmus test: Would you still engage in this experience if you could tell no one about it?”

Howell is expanding his database with the help of an interactive website,, which allows users to take surveys about their buying practices. Their responses are lending support to the idea that another mistake we make is choosing to buy things instead of experiences. Your shoes are not unique; your TV’s not unique. Your vacation to Rome or your family camping trip, however, are much more particularly yours since nobody else in the world did exactly the same things or shared them with exactly the same people you did. And far from wearing out, the memories of the experience grow richer over time. “Money can make you happy,” Howell says. “But it’s about how you spend it.”

The Stubbornness of Happiness
If there’s an upside to America’s down mood, it’s that happiness and the ways we pursue it are so wonderfully adaptive. The country has been at this kind of societal inflection point before — many times before, really — and we’ve come through it with our spirit intact. Think we’re in psychic crisis now? Try the existential crisis of the Civil War, which eventually led to rebuilding and reconciliation, peace and prosperity. Think overleveraged homes and lack of mobility spell the end today? Try the Great Depression. The rise of industrial America, which we usually think of as a good thing, probably felt a lot like our era does now to the workers back then, as people who really wanted to make money left the frontiers and poured into manufacturing centers. It was the end of homesteading and the beginning of clock punching, which seemed terrible, except that clock punching eventually made a lot of people rich or at least richer than they had been.

We’re adapting in similar ways now. Steel mills close and tech start-ups open; old media falters and new media emerges. None of it is easy; it’s called disruption for a reason. But if the settler gazing out over 1,000 pristine acres felt that delicious frisson of neurotransmitters churning a century or two ago, why shouldn’t the entrepreneur drafting a business plan or the Web designer preparing to launch a site experience the same thing?

No American simply inherits happiness by dint of genes or birthplace or a brain set to sunny. Happiness, for a culture, is more like a vital sign, the temperature and heart rate of a nation. Like all vital signs, it can fluctuate. But like all vital signs, it has a set point, a level to which it strives to return. America’s happiness set point has long been high and healthy — a simple gift of biology, history and environment maybe but a gift all the same. In our own loud and messy way, we’ve always worked to make the most of it, and we probably always will.

With reporting by Alex Aciman / New York and Katy Steinmetz / Washington

GRAPHIC: Happiness Around the World

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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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