What Makes Us Happy?: The Pursuit of Happiness

Dr. Purushothaman
October 3, 2013

The definition of happiness is: a state of well-being and contentment; a pleasurable or satisfying experience. But what makes us happy? Is it money? Having a big house or a nice car? Or maybe it is family life? How can we address this - what at times seems - most elusive of questions?


There are many experiences that are interwoven in our life. An experience can last anywhere from a brief moment, to a few hours, days, or even for many years. So what defines a distinct experience? An experience starts when a goal is triggered, and ends in a climax when the goal is achieved (or an anticlimax - if the goal is given up). Everything that is related to the process of goal pursuit, that falls within this time span, constitutes the experience.

Yet, it is not enough to achieve the goal for the experience to be enjoyable. The process itself must also be stimulating to our senses and emotions. So how can the experience be stimulating to our senses and emotions?

At the one end of the spectrum the experience can be constantly and intensely stimulating one sense or emotion - like the thrill of a ride in an amusement park. The problem with this sort of stimulation is that the sense organ becomes desensitized to the stimulation over time. As a result it may require an ever increasing dose of stimulus to get the same sensation.

At the other end of the spectrum the experience can be stimulating many of our senses, and a whole range of our emotions intermittently. This is what happens when we watch a good film. It can make us intensely anxious, excited, surprised, or angry within a few minutes. This is also why we enjoy sex so much - it stimulates so many of our senses and emotions, and ends in a great climax.

Direct vs. Indirect Goals

Our experience can be based directly on our own goals. For example, we can decide we want to change careers (goal triggered). To accomplish this we read some books and take evening classes in journalism (goal pursuit). After a year or so we can start our new career as a freelance journalist (goal achieved). Another example of a direct goal is if we get hungry (goal triggered). We go to a good diner, and order our favorite sandwich (goal pursuit). We finish our meal and pay the bill (goal achieved).

Our experience can also be based indirectly on our empathy to the goals of others. An example of this is when we watch a game of football as fans of one of the teams. As the game starts, our team - say, Barcelona - wants to win (goal triggered). To do this they must outplay and outscore the other team - say, Real Madrid (goal pursuit). At the end of the game the score is 6-2 for Barça (goal achieved). Our experience and enjoyment of the game was based on our connection with our team. As the game progressed our emotions reflected the events that took place on the field through our team's perspective. If Barça was close to scoring a goal it made us excited. If Real was close to scoring it made us anxious. As the game drew to a close we were happy with the achievement of our team.

Another example of indirect goal pursuit is when we watch a movie. Let's take a look at the movie The Shawshank Redemption: at first we get introduced to the main character and his world. In the first scene of the movie we see that Andy Dufresne is unjustly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and sentenced to two life sentences at the Shawshank State Penitentiary. In film this scene is called the "inciting incident" (goal triggered).

Throughout the movie we see the progression of how Andy deals with his situation (goal pursuit). Almost 20 years into his incarceration, Tommy, a new inmate, reveals that an inmate at another prison claimed to have committed an identical murder as in Andy's case. Andy believes that this might help prove his innocence. However, the prison warden, Samuel Norton, who fear that Andy's release would expose his corruption, has Tommy killed. In the movie's "climax scene" Andy brilliantly executes his escape plan (goal achieved), then implicates Norton in corruption, which leads to Norton committing suicide to avoid arrest. The movie ends as Andy and a prisoner he befriended, Red, happily reunite on a beach in Mexico.

Our experience of the movie reflected our empathy with Andy and his goal to achieve justice. Andy was met with ever increasing challenges that he had to overcome, and we were taken on an emotional journey with his struggles. Eventually Andy achieved freedom and redemption, and we enjoyed the experience of the journey and its resolution.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Goals

Of course, if we're not used to thinking of our experiences as of goals it may require some effort to adjust at first. But with practice we'll start creating enjoyable experiences more effortlessly. Effortless goal activation actually happens to us all the time. This is the case when we're watching a good movie. Our indirect goals are triggered spontaneously as we are immersed into the characters' world.

Interestingly enough, goals can also be triggered unconsciously. This means that we can be pursuing a goal without our conscious awareness or intention of doing so. So how can a goal be triggered unconsciously?

Research in social and cognitive psychology indicates that people who are unknowingly exposed to stimuli strongly related to a goal show motivation toward that goal. There are many different stimuli, such as goal-relevant words, physical objects, and relationship partners, that can unconsciously trigger goals. For example, seeing a photo of a friend can unconsciously trigger the goal to be friendly or helpful. Seeing a briefcase can unconsciously trigger the goal to work hard.

Since some of our experiences can occur outside of our consciousness, we may not be aware of how these experiences affect our happiness. However, it is possible to gain greater control over our experiences and happiness. This can be done if we learn to focus and direct our attention.

Addiction and Depression

Some people make it their goal to pursue pleasure. Ironically, pleasure is most elusive for those who pursue it most. The reason for this predicament is quite simple: these people confuse the process of goal pursuit with goal achievement. They are trying to achieve a goal that cannot be achieved, since their goal is the process itself. This type of thinking is at the core of addictive behavior.

While the process is stimulating the overall experience is disappointing, because the goal is never achieved. Since they do not achieve their goal, they think that the problem was that they did not have enough stimulation. This endeavor may quickly degenerate into a pursuit of ever increasing sensual stimulation, with ever increasing dose of stimulus.

What's necessary to break this vicious cycle is to abandon the goal itself. But this prospect may be even more frightening to the addict than the addiction itself. After all, the addict perceives his goal as the only way to achieve happiness. Abandoning the goal, that is perceived as the pursuit of happiness, may therefore lead to depression.


Physiologically, we all have very similar senses and emotions. But our experience of an event can be very different from that of another. How can the murderous act of a suicide bomber bring the deepest sorrow to the families of the victims, but at the same time bring tears of joy and ecstasy to the mother of the "martyr"?

We relate to ourselves and the world around us through our senses, emotions, and perception. In turn, these shape our experiences. Our perception of the world is directly related to our values and outlook of life. People who have similar values and outlook would have a similar experience of an event. People with different values and outlook may have completely opposing responses to the same event.

Outlooks may differ in term of style, refinement, and fact. The outlook of a musician is stylistically different from that of an engineer. The outlook of a master is more refined than that of a novice. And the outlook of a drunkard is factually different from that of the sober one. Similarly, our values can be based in nature and reality, or they can be based in scripture and delusion.

The experience of the families of victims is based on the reality of the tragic demise of their loved ones. The experience of the mother of the murderer is based on the delusion that her son went to paradise. Even though the experience of the mother is based on a delusional outlook, physiologically, there is nothing that would indicate that her experience was any less "real" than that of the families.

Yet, an experience that is based in reality is surely more meaningful than one that is based in delusion. To have truly meaningful experiences our outlook and values must be consistent with reality and nature.

Life Goals and Short-Term Goals

So let's answer the questions we started this post with:

Money in itself cannot make you happy. Nor can a big house or a nice car. If you've made it your goal to be wealthy, and achieved that goal, that experience certainly made you happy. Wealth gives you freedom and expands your possibilities in life. Once you are wealthy you can use that wealth to achieve other goals, and these new experiences can make you happy.

Similarly, If you've made it your goal to acquire a nice car and achieved it, that experience made you happy. But now you need to use this car as a tool to achieve new goals. To drive to work, or go on a road trip. These new experiences can promote your happiness. If you do not use the car to pursue new goals, its presence alone certainly will not contribute to your happiness.

We tend to create new experiences effortlessly in social settings. Therefore, family life can certainly contribute to our happiness. However, if we are not conscious about what kinds of experiences we create, this may lead to unpleasant experiences and our family life can suffer from it as a result. We should therefore keep in mind the kinds of experiences we want to have, and strive to promote them.

Life is meant to be enjoyed. We should therefore make it our goal to have an enjoyable life. If we also want a meaningful life we should make it our life's goal to live in accord with the natural values. We can enjoy and experience the contributions of others to the world. But we must also use the time we have to make a real and meaningful impact in the life of others and make the world a better place.

Our happiness depends both on our life goals - to have a meaningful and enjoyable life - and on our short-term goals. We may not succeed in everything we set out to do, and we may be disappointed at times. But as long as we act in accord with our values and pursue our life goals and dreams, our life will be full of joy and excitement despite any setbacks

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