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 an American and you’re not having fun, it just might be your own fault. Our long national expedition is entering its 238th year, and from the start, it was clear that this would be a bracing place to live. There would be plenty of food, plenty of land, plenty of minerals in the mountains and timber in the wilderness. You might have to work hard, but you’d have a grand time doing it.

That promise, for the most part, has been kept. There would be land rushes and gold rushes and wagon trains and riverboats and cities built hard against cities until there was no place to build but up, so we went in that direction too. We created outrageous things just because we could — the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, which started to rise the year after the stock market crashed, because what better way to respond to a global economic crisis than to build the world’s tallest skyscraper? We got to the moon 40 years later and, true to our hot-rodding spirit, soon contrived to get a car up there as well. The tire tracks left on the lunar surface (tracks that are still there) are the real American graffiti.

(MORE: See Instagram images of joy from around the world and take our happiness poll here.)

All human beings may come equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse — the urge to find lusher land just over the hill, fatter buffalo in the next valley — but it’s Americans who have codified the idea, written it into the Declaration of Independence and made it a central mandate of the national character. American happiness would never be about savor-the-moment contentment. That way lay the reflective café culture of the Old World — fine for Europe, not for Jamestown. Our happiness would be bred, instead, of an almost adolescent restlessness, an itch to do the Next Big Thing. The terms of the deal the founders offered are not easy: there’s no guarantee that we’ll actually achieve happiness, but we can go after it in almost any way we choose. All by itself, that freedom ought to bring us joy, but the more cramped, distracted, maddeningly kinetic nature of the modern world has made it harder than ever. Somehow there must be a way to thread that needle, to reconcile the contradictions between our pioneer impulses and our contemporary selves.

(READ:  Jon Meacham on what Thomas Jefferson meant by the pursuit of happiness)

Those impulses are very deeply rooted: pilgrims to the New World were a self-selected group. Not every person suffering under the whip of tyranny or the crush of poverty had the temperamental wherewithal to pick up, pack up and travel to the other side of the globe and start over. Those who did were looking for something — pursuing something — and happiness is as good a way of defining that goal as any. Once that migrant population started raising babies on a new continent, the odds were that the same questing spirit would be bred into or at least taught to the new generations as well.

And it has been. It took us 100 years to settle the continent and less than 200 to become the world’s dominant power. We snatched and grabbed and extracted, yes, but we gave back too. Happy people don’t just accumulate fortune; they invent things — the lightbulb, the telegraph, the movie camera, the airplane, the mass-produced automobile, the polio vaccine, the personal computer, social media, the iPhone. And happy people are also generous people, rebuilding other nations (hello, Marshall Plan) and donating to charities; the U.S. still ranks No. 1 among all nations in per capita charitable giving.

But what happens to a breed of people hardwired by genes or culture or both to build, build, build when most of the building is done? What happens when the sprinting dog actually catches the car? That first moon landing — Apollo 11 — was a very big deal, something we had pursued like nothing else. But Apollo 12? Sort of a letdown.

It’s not as if we don’t have the financial means to keep ourselves stimulated. We spent $118 billion on travel abroad in 2012; we spend close to $25 billion per year to attend sporting events and, combined with Canada, nearly $11 billion on movie tickets. We buy ourselves an annual $140 billion worth of recreational equipment and $200 billion of electronics.

(Infographic: The Game of Happiness–find out what makes us happy at each stage of life.)

But that’s consumptive happiness, the happiness that comes not from sowing but from reaping, not from building the house but from watching TV in your new living room. That may be the goal of the work, but it’s a goal that, once achieved, can leave us feeling bored.

Since 1972, only about one-third of Americans have described themselves as “very happy,” according to surveys funded by the National Science Foundation. Just since 2004, the share of Americans who identify themselves as optimists has plummeted from 79% to 50%, according to a new TIME poll. Meanwhile, more than 20% of us will suffer from a mood disorder at some point in our lifetimes and more than 30% from an anxiety disorder. By the time we’re 18 years old, 11% of us have been diagnosed with depression.

(POLL: Tell Us What Makes You Happy)

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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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