The Happiness of Pursuit

Americans are free to pursue happiness, but there's no guarantee we'll achieve it. The secret is knowing how — and where — to look

  • Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

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    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.

    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.

    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.

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