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The Happiness of Pursuit

From an interview with Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology at Cornell University, and author of "The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life":

Q: Your title, and indeed your book, seem to conclude that pursuit itself, rather than an end, is what makes us happy. What’s the best balance to achieve this happiness, what you call “flow”?

A: In the book I don’t attempt to come up with very specific advice for how to be happy, but just some general tools for understanding your own mind. Flow is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. Evolutionarily, we are selected for being good at certain kinds of things. You’re not challenged if you’re not tested, so I think we have this drive that pushes us to maybe overstep the boundary every now and then. And for success, we get rewarded incredibly with this feeling of well-being and excitement.

Q: What distinguishes Americans’ attitudes toward happiness from those of other parts of the world?

A: Well, we are told happiness is our inalienable right, but we are not told what to do with it once you catch it. So in that respect I guess we’re exceptional because happiness made it into the foundational documents of this republic. This guy in Holland tabulates large-scale studies of well-being across different countries, and we are nowhere near the top. I don’t want to sound like someone who preempts or tries to write over scientific research, but I do speculate why. I think one scientifically, psychologically validated reason for not making the most of one’s happiness is investing in the wrong kind of acquisitions. If you have some money to spend and you spend it on buying goods that’s not nearly as effective in making you happy in the long run as buying experiences. If you buy an experience, you can basically revisit it and enjoy it over and over again, whereas with material goods, the fun goes away. Running the risk of sounding too corny, quality time with yourself, with your family and with nature is worth a lot.

-Nancy McKeon, "The Neuroscience of Happiness," interview of Shimon Edelman, Salon.com, 01/28/2012