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

Seeking meaning, not happiness, will make you happier

peter-lloyd-609343-unsplashPhoto by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken – so near and yet so far – if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.

As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness/pleasure only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.

An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:

“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.” — Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism

Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy – a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it.

“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap” — William Bennett

Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian – a social psychologist based in Melbourne – identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.

It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed – end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.

“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?’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.” — Alain De Botton

In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that happiness cannot be coveted, the happier we’ll be.

“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit” — Daniel Gilbert

We’re not the only one’s suffering – our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again – amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.

So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?

The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is wonderfully unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”  — Helen Keller

In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.

“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something” — Harold S. Kushner

“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” — Martin E. P. Seligman

What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?

Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.

Chasing happiness

1_VWcdxFLzSx2VvoEkMevAdQPhoto by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Most of us spend our lives fruitlessly chasing happiness, to our everlasting detriment.

It seems the natural thing to do; why on earth would we seek pain? Wouldn’t that make us debased masochists, delightfully sweating in anticipation of a jolly good bit of suffering?

Only pursuing positive experiences, it turns out, is a foolish endeavour. We’re robbing our lives of depth, because most things worth doing involve some degree of pain. It’s tempting to spend our days scrolling through social media like zombie consumers, safely protected from the possibility of a negative emotion emerging in our heads. But nothing is achieved by doing so; no sense of fulfilment will ever arise.

Alain De Botton says it better than anyone else:

The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

– Alain De Botton

We must have the grit and fortitude to battle through pain if we want to achieve anything worthwhile. Sadness is not a disorder to be cured, it’s the path to a more fulfilling life.

The daily struggles that we have with our negative emotions only serve to exacerbate the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Pushing against unfavourable emotion, rather than accepting it, simply makes us feel worse. It’s as though we’re desperate to split ourselves in two: remove the undesirable, sickly sides of ourselves with a rusty blade. Trying to cut it away just poisons us.

It isn’t possible to be half-human. We must accept the parts of ourselves that we loathe; stop resisting the so-called negative aspects of our being. We cannot remove the bad. It’s useless to even try. We’ll live with embarrassment, shame, fear, unwanted desire, sickness, anxiety and every other despicable thought or feeling that we can imagine. The great George Orwell once said:

“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

What makes us so arrogant to think that we can dispel unhappiness from our lives? This misguided quest of attempting to make every single moment the happiest it can possibly be only results in inevitable disappointment; a bad taste in our mouths that we’ve been trying to wash out since adolescence. We’re destined for a rollercoaster of emotions:

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”

– Seneca

We can battle fate and exacerbate the pain, or instead make the choice to spend our lives with an attitude of acceptance. Only by embracing the latter can we truly be happier.

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