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, BeyondthePurchase.org, 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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