Why our desire for more makes us unhappy, and how to beat it

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Many people in Western society seem to harbour the impression that their lives are somehow lacking; that their current position in the world, their numerous, shiny possessions, the relationships that they maintain, and the emotions that they feel, aren’t entirely up to scratch, as though what they’re experiencing is just a lacklustre pre-show—a taster before the main event. Though our days may be peppered with stimulating challenge, favourable encounters, and a great deal of comfort, there’s still something missing. Surely this can’t be it?

We carry within us an insatiable desire for more—a destroyer of contentment; a hankerer of stuff, status and success, that we assume will assassinate our demons, or at least muffle them for a little while, as though the fulfilment of our wants can somehow repair our yearning souls.

Where does this voraciousness come from? There’s a few culprits, each with their own part to play.

Materialism

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One of the most depressing misconceptions in Western society is the idea that accumulating stuff makes us happy. Observe the terrifying fracas of a US shopping mall on Black Friday; hoards of consumers dashing for cut-price products, more than willing to thrust their elbows at anyone who gets in their way. Consider the tacky line of super-bright Lamborghinis that might appear outside a Monte Carlo casino – their gold-dripped owners assuming that admiring looks from the public will help to camouflage their deficits of character. Contemplate the ever-expanding wardrobe of the average person, every square inch of space being used, and yet nothing to wear.

Materialism is baked into our capitalist economy, driven by the nonsensical belief that every purchase carries a little bit of happiness with it, but in reality, leaves us both financially and spiritually emptier. Excessive materialism has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. The things that are being rapaciously sold to us—our irises continually flashing with the bright reflections of persuasive adverts—are making us miserable. A study undertaken by the American Psychological Association found that materialistic values are driven by insecurity, with sufferers buying more stuff in an attempt to assuage their harrowing self-doubts.

“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” —Philip Slater

What’s worse, our materialistic cravings are laying waste to our beautiful green and blue planet, its rock face spattered with a million factories filled with millions of underpaid workers, atmosphere and minds polluted alike. All because of the fleeting, cheap thrill that we experience when buying stuff, expecting that it’ll carry forward into the future, perhaps turning into some kind of contentment.

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ― Shirley Chisholm

“The point is, there is no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others” — Iain M. Banks, Complicity

In his book The High Price of MaterialismTim Kasser explains that those hell-bent on obtaining possessions tend to experience fewer positive emotions every day. On the flip-side, those who report high levels of life satisfaction are liable to entertain fewer materialistic values, and have better relationships. We’re much more materially affluent than our grandparents, but are slightly unhappier, with a higher risk of depression and social pathology. Materialism not only fails to increase our subjective well-being, it causes us damage. Every happiness-promising advert that flashes before you is tainted with a sickening irony.

“For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”—Mark 8:36

Status/money

As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We’re anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers so that we may win their respect, and so their love. We abhor the condescending glare that we might receive when paying for a train ticket with mountains of small change, as though our temporary financial hardship is something disgusting, to be placed at a far away distance so that it cannot infect the more fortunate among us.

Much of our craving for status is created from our inherent desire to be loved, fuelled by the assumption that we’ll be treated with benevolent respect if we’re able to show off our expansive seven-bedroom mansion, our platinum gray Armani suit, or our Instagram model girlfriend, lovely to look at, but with the conversational skills of a hyperactive parakeet. Status is compensation for inadequacy—the idea that we’re not good enough, and so must surround ourselves with luxurious wealth, creating a facade that might trick our audience into thinking that we’ve really got it together.

“By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” ― Robert Frost

Status cannot inoculate us against feelings of distress, or fix the nagging doubts that we have about ourselves. All the money in the world cannot make us happier, and in fact, excessively wealthy people suffer from higher rates of depression. Psychologist and author Leon Seltzer has treated various millionaire patients, stating the following:

“Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post [supportive relationships and self-acceptance]. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of ‘feel good’ chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.” — Leon Seltzer

Studies have shown that as wealth increases, so do destructive feelings of entitlement and notions of self interest, while compassion and empathy are reduced. Money can have the unfortunate effect of damaging our good character, yet so many of us are hopelessly locked into the rat race, labouring under the regrettable assumption that we’re doing what’s best for us.

“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” ― Socrates

Self-help gurus tell us that CEOs read a book a week, and that we can do the same when purchasing their cut-price course, eventually eclipsing the achievements of our colleagues and accelerating away from them towards career dominance, a position where our perpetual emptiness might finally be filled. It’s bullshit, of course. Status and wealth may produce admiring glances, but they cannot create what we really need—the love and compassion of our fellow humans, and patient, sympathetic self-acceptance.

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” —David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Rejection of sadness

Sadness, and its accompanying, so-called negative emotions, has a tendency to be rejected by Western society, as though there’s no place for it in our lives. We’re taught that happiness is our natural birthright, and sadness a disorder to be cured. Naturally, during our darker, melancholic moments, we suspect that there’s something wrong with us, and that the situation is somehow unnatural. We’re not supposed to be this way!

Sadness—along with the other six basic emotions—is a permanent part of our biology. This inevitable, painful emotion will appear countless times over the course of our lives, often at the most inopportune of moments, challenging us to a battle in which we have little desire to partake. Instead, what we usually do is attempt to numb the sadness in some way, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, or any other vice that offers nothing but a band-aid with weak adhesive. Our unreasonable desire to expel sadness from our lives helps to feed an addiction to positivity, a compulsion doomed to failure. We simply cannot change our nature.

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”—George Orwell

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Now that the some of the culprits of our perpetual yearning have been unearthed, what can we do to battle them? How can we learn to become content with what we have? You might consider trying the following.

Gratitude

Gratitude is like kryptonite to our greed for more; a neutralising element that drains its destructive power. The field of positive psychology has shown that a gratitude diary can increase feelings of contentment, because it forces you to focus on what’s good in your life, rather than what’s lacking. By paying attention to the things that we love, we stumble upon the realisation that our lives contain much joy, and our thirst for more is temporarily diminished.

“You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”—Allen Ginsberg

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is an exercise sent from the gods, offering benefits such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, and much more. Though it certainly requires practice and patience to become an expert, the process itself is simple, and requires no equipment.

Meditation helps to fight our desire for more by forcing us to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of us, as opposed to frantic, anxious thinking which tries to soothe itself with destructive behaviours such as gluttonous shopping. Our new-found calm carries an enhanced sense of self-awareness, allowing us to catch ourselves in the act of pernicious thinking, whereby we stop for a moment, realise that we’re about to engage in a toxic act, and decide to do something healthier instead.

Self-acceptance and self-compassion

Self-acceptance is allowing, accepting and welcoming all parts of yourself, whether good or bad. It’s about accepting your shadow—the dark, grisly side of your nature that you’d rather keep locked away in a dusty cupboard. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t have flaws, the trick is learning to accept them. Unconditional self-acceptance allows us to live full and honest lives, embracing each and every aspect of our personality.

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” — Amy Bloom

As we become more self-accepting, we also become more content, which weakens our incessant yearning for more. By reminding ourselves that we’re worthy of love (from ourselves most of all), we’re instilling our lives with genuine, clear-cut value.

“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times… You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment”—Grieger

This practice can be accompanied by self-compassion—being kind, gentle, and supportive to yourself at all times, even when you make the most horrifying of mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to distinguish between making a bad decision, and being a bad person. Gaffes are being made everywhere all the time, and a typical reaction is to attack ourselves for the indiscretion, creating destructive feelings of shame and unworthiness. Treating ourselves with sympathetic kindness is the favourable alternative.

“Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” —Neff & Dahm

Good relationships

Strong personal relationships are a crucial component of a healthy and happy life. Many people regard moments of close connection and communal enjoyment as their most meaningful and valuable life experiences. Developing warm, supportive, and kind relationships can increase our sense of well-being, lengthen our lives, minimise heart-raising stress, and even make us feel wealthier.

Friends make us feel loved, creating a sense of belonging and a deep-seated satisfaction, vanquishing our desire for more. Voracious shopping sprees or glistening palaces are no longer needed to make us feel better about ourselves—our friends do a much better job. Side-splitting laughter, or serious, soul-touching conversation, is no substitute for an oak-panelled corner office in a Manhattan high-rise.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” —Helen Keller

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All of the money, material goods, and status in the world cannot quench our incessant desire for more. Often, it backfires and our craving is strengthened, leaving us in a worse state than before. Our insatiable desire for more can be allayed through consistent gratitude, regular meditation, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and strong relationships. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that we don’t need a million dollars or a house full of expensive gadgets in order to feel content. Eventually we’ll realise that we have just what we need—we have enough.

“Two men graduated from the same high school. One of them went to college and graduate school and became a professor, making a professor’s salary. The other went out and became a billionaire in the business world.

At a reunion, the two got together, and the billionaire was boasting about all the things he had accomplished and was able to buy with his billions. The professor said, “I have something that you will never have.”

The billionaire said, “How can that be? I can buy anything with the money I have. What do you have that I will never have?”

The professor answered, “I have enough.”

—Old Mountain Man, comment from New York Times column

How pleasure is destroying our planet

If the boffins of the world were able to invent a machine that magically pulled everyone’s desires from their heads, analysis would likely show a motivating force more prevalent than anything else: pleasure. It pervades and influences much of our lives, acting as a primary catalyst for seeking out thrilling sex, delicious food, hypnotic music, and a glut of other experiences too numerous to mention. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst who may have been a little too enamoured with his mother, developed a “pleasure principle” theory which posited that people have an innate desire to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. His insights demonstrate that pleasure is a huge and inescapable driving force in our lives.

Leap back a couple of millennia, and observe a philosophy that had pleasure as its primary goal: hedonism.

“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” – Siduri

The hedonists believed pleasure to be the highest good, and a legitimate goal of human life. This might be construed as a mortally selfish philosophy, but social obligation and altruism were still considered important, containing hedonistic value in themselves. The world’s most famous wanderers – the Jews – also believed that mankind was created for pleasure, with “Eden” being a translation of the Hebrew word for it. This is the reason that God placed Adam and Eve in the perpetually pleasurable and shameless Garden of Eden. If it wasn’t for that pesky danger noodle sweetly hissing into Eve’s ear, we might not have ended up in such a terrible mess.

In many people’s minds, pleasure is synonymous with all things good. It’s the toothy grin that appears on your face whenever presented with a freshly roasted joint of lamb; the satisfaction that follows after realising that you’ve created an excellent piece of work; the erection that springs to life when presented with something soft and curvy. All truly awesome experiences, to be sought after and savoured. The problem occurs with imbalance, when your primary aim is solely pleasure and nothing else. Attempting to shut out every other emotion aside from pleasure is laughably foolish, sickeningly unhealthy, and completely unrealistic. Our minds and bodies are magnificently complex; we’re equipped to experience a huge range of astonishing, varied emotions, including those interpreted as negative. Many of these unfavourable emotions have a immense measure of utility, which if we just looked a little closer, could be employed to our advantage. Attempting to live your life at one end of the scale just results in disillusionment and burnout. You must take the good with the bad.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’?” – Nietzsche

Pleasure and displeasure; joy and suffering; up and down – these aren’t mortal-enemy dichotomies, they’re part of a single, unbreakable scale. It’s impossible to eliminate one without the other. Remove pleasure, and displeasure must go along with it. What a dreadfully boring, grey world we’d live in if we just experienced pleasure and it’s accompanying emotions. It’s a place similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a society in which negative experience is expelled, but at the expense of truth; of how our lives should be honestly lived.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A modern version of this idea can be found in the movie Demolition Man, which takes place in a “happy joy joy” dystopian future. Ironically, the entire movie is a gluttonous guilty pleasure.

One of the biggest issues to arise out of pleasure seeking at all costs is economic materialism. Buying stuff provides us with temporary pleasure, and this drives our capitalist economy at an increasingly devastating environmental cost. The relentless warnings from the scientific community don’t appear to be loud enough for our selfish ears, not when there’s pleasure to be had. How did humanity ever reach such a disturbing level of ignorance? The tipping point that we’ve reached can no longer be disregarded, and unless curbed, our greedy, implacable pursuit of pleasure will be what pushes us to self-destruction. Not only is this obviously our most foolish mistake, it’s also completely misguided, because accumulating more and more stuff has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky named this a “joyless economy”, in which people eternally chase after comforts, to the detriment of happiness. Research also suggests that when we deny ourselves a pleasure, the next time that we obtain it, we savour it much more. You’ll appreciate your delicious coffee more intensely if you can muster the willpower to have it just once a week. By curbing our substantial impulses towards pleasure, we’re not only making ourselves happier, but we’re saving our planet in the process. This isn’t to suggest that we should become hunger-ravaged ascetics, holding a firm hand up against every possible pleasure that appears before us, but instead take a more cautionary approach in our lives, and consider your own happiness before dive-bombing into temptation. Your life probably wouldn’t be better if it included a petrol-guzzling V8, regardless of the narcissistic pride you might feel when your arm is perched out of its side-window. Neither will it be measurably improved with a pair of fetching designer glasses. These things are ultimately worthless, and just for show.

Pleasure is a good thing when pursued at a healthy and responsible level. Life would be much less exciting without it. But when it presents itself before us, we must have the mindfulness to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s good for us and our planet in the long-run. We have a choice to make: voracious in-the-moment pleasure, or a balanced forgoing that could slowly tip the environmental scales back in our favour, ensuring our continued existence on this glorious planet.

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