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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    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

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