Americans have an inalienable right to pursue happiness - but no guide book to tell them what to do if they catch some. And although other nationalities may not grant specific rights to happiness, it is pretty much a universal shared experience that attaining happiness is not a bad thing.
In this area, neuroscience does not help us a great deal. It shows us that there are 'hedonic hotspots' in the brain. They are located in the ventral pallidum, the nucleus accumbens, the orbitirfrontal cortex and the ventral pallidum. Hit one of those spots with some neural e.m.f. and a pleasurable sensation is experienced. (I did warn you that this is not a lot of help to us).
More useful is the knowledge that Dopamine is not the pleasure chemical of the mind we once believed. It is part of the "wanting" mechanism of our brain: and behavioral science has proven that wanting, fulfilling those wants and happiness are all quite different things.
There is a region, deep in the septum, that acts as an "on-off" switch to the pleasure centers in the brain noted above. When it gets stimulated by neural e.m.f or an electronic probe, the effect is an immediate and intense sense of pleasure.
But this mechanistic view of pleasure will not do a great deal for us. We can study the retina and chart as much of the brain as we wish to understand how our vision works: but no one has even got close to explaining how the experience of redness works.
It is obvious that pleasure is subjective. On the extremely rare occasions that I bid and make a grand slam at Bridge, the elation that my partner and I share seems to be balanced by the annoyance of our opponents. Probably because their winnings for the evening have just been reduced by $20 or so.
And it is not just that happiness is subjective: all behavioral research suggests that it is of a transcendental nature. While the physical mechanics may be very similar in all of us, the causes are not, and even in ourselves, change over time.
We have some control over what makes us happy. We can set out to acquire the taste for some activity or specific flavor, and genuinely achieve pleasure from things that once were repugnant. A liking for hot peppers or garlic, a love of classical music: these are things that can be achieved and once achieved, cherished for a life time.
Anticipation of pleasure can be a source of happiness. In the way knowing something unpleasant is going to happen in your immediate future is in itself unpleasant, it turns out the opposite is true. You can tap into this mechanism by planning various "treats" of one kind or another over the next week or so, and thereby get a lift in your spirits.
Recognizing that getting what you desire and being happy are different things might lessen the constant desire to satisfy a never ending list of wants. Materialism and happiness only go together in the land of marketing and advertising:
The transcendental side of religion can tap into the transcendental nature of happiness and create an elation that is very intense. Some religions come with traps for the unwary, so do be careful over which religion you chose to follow. (Switching to a more useful faith is not as difficult as you might suspect).
But back to our behavioral scientists and what they observe is that happiness comes from experiencing pleasurable things. People who engage in learning, interacting, and activities have measurably greater happiness in doing those things when not doing them. When it comes to happiness they find that the journey itself is everything, and arriving at a destination is often the cause for the happiness to stop.
Which is possibly why Americans have the right of pursuit, and not of ownership