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[Chalice] More, More, MORE! [Chalice]
Why do we Never Have Enough?

This service was also recorded live.
33:41 minutes - 13.5 MB - Why do we Never Have Enough? .mp3 file.

Presented May 13, 2007, by Paul Miller

I. The problem:

My friends, I have a problem. I got too much stuff. And I have another problem that is just as bad. I want more stuff. No matter how much stuff I got, it's never enough, even when I got too much stuff.

I work hard, well, some of the time, and I know I'm getting stuff done, and I have just a couple more projects to get done, and then I'll be able to relax. It's always been this way, as long as I can remember. I have always been just a few items short of the good life. Surely I must be getting close.

Do you feel the same way? It is part of the human condition to never be quite satisfied. Oddly, many of the people who have the most seem to be the least satisfied with what they have. Surely Donald Trump has enough. He could kick back and enjoy the good life, but he keeps on working like he was starving to death.

Piles of cash are neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness. The truly indigent are mostly miserable, as we would expect. But after one's basic needs are met, there is little correlation between material wealth and happiness. In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness up to about $10,000 per year per person. After that, the data is completely scattered.

In the early 1900's, the economist John Maynard Keynes observed that until very recently, "there was no very great change in the standard of life for the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth". Keynes calculated the standard of living roughly doubled between 2000B.C. and 1700 A.D. Back in those days, people thought they didn't have enough because they really didn't. In those lean times, more really was better. Then came the industrial revolution. Later came the internal combustion engine, electricity, the green revolution, and now the electronic revolution. Doubling of the standard of living, which once took 4000 years, now takes 10 years. In real dollars, average income in the US tripled between 1970 and 1990. We've really got it made now. We've got bigger, faster cars, and a second car, bought on credit, so we can drive to a second job, to pay for the gas to get to our first job, to pay the second mortgage that paid for the addition to our house that we don't live in, because we are always at work or in traffic. But soon, we will be happy. As soon as we get just a little more stuff.

II. The reason:

There is a reason for this dissatisfaction, and it isn't a lack of stuff. Frankly, we are stupid. Now, wait, it's not our fault we're stupid. Let me explain:

We are highly evolved animals. Our highly evolved instincts got us where we are today. Our instincts evolved in a world where we never had enough, and getting more was the key to survival. Our ancestors were not the happiest hominids in the village. Our ancestors were the grumpy old men and women who were never quite satisfied with what they had. They, like the famous ant in the fable, toiled all summer, hoarding all they could, while the happy grasshopper played his fiddle. The grasshoppers starved, while the ants lived long and made lots of babies. Thus, the cavemen who were happy and content died off, and the insatiable ones perpetuated their genes.

Evolution doesn't care about happiness. Evolution cares about staying alive, miserably if need be, and making babies. To suit evolution's end, it is not enough to have enough. You need more than the other guy. As population increases, nature's law is not survival of all who are fit, but survival of the fittest. The peacock with the longest tail or the teenager with the fanciest car gets the girls. The Paleolithic homemaker with the biggest pile of sling stones in her cave has the best chance of keeping her kids, and her genes, alive when a hungry saber-toothed cat comes calling.

This is like competition between trees in a forest. Trees don't need to be tall to get enough light. They just need to be taller than the trees around them. So they squander tons of lignin and cellulose trying to outgrow their neighbors. If all trees in a forest were one tenth as tall, they would be just as happy.

This is how we got the problem of positional goods. We are satisfied with our stuff to the extent that we have more and better stuff than our neighbors. Most people would rather earn $50,000 a year in a world where the average salary is $25,000 a year, than make $100,000 a year where most people make $200,000.

Happiness is also subject to adaptation. When something good happens, we are happier until we get used to the improvement in circumstance. Then we return to our previous level of felicity. Most people who win the lottery are ecstatic, and remain happy for a few months. Then they return to their pre-lotto level of misery.

In a survey of the American population, participants were given a list of goods, like house, car, swimming pool, etc. They were asked to check items that formed part of the ideal life they would like to have. Then they were asked to check the items they already had. The survey was repeated 16 years later. Over those 16 years, people went from having just a few of those big ticket items, to having many of them. But guess what? Their ideal of what they need for the good life increased at almost exactly the same rate as they acquired them. When young, a house, a car, and a TV meant the good life. Sixteen years hence, a vacation home and a boat became essential. Over 16 years, people went from having 1.7 items on the list to having 3.1 items, on average. The good life went from having 4.4 items to having 5.6 items. As people got wealthier, they were always 2.2 items short of the good life.

There is an evolutionary advantage to always wanting more. We evolved to want, not necessarily to like what we wanted once we get it.

Fortunately, the door swings both ways. When something bad happens, we feel we will be miserable forever. But adaptation eventually lets us return to a normal level of happiness. People who suffer the worst calamities get over it, and after some time they are as happy as they were before their misfortune. There is no survival benefit in mourning a loss forever. Those who did not adapt emotionally got eaten by bears, while they were crying in their beer.

There is some interesting brain chemistry going on here. Desire and pleasure involve the release of dopamine and opioids in the brain. Opioids are the natural brain chemicals similar to not-so-natural opiates like morphine. Lab rats will work very hard to get a shot of synthetic dopamine into their brains, or to get an electric current applied to their lateral hypothalamus. That's part of the brain involved in brain-stimulation reward. It looks like they really love their dopamine. When they get their fix, they want to eat more, too.

When a rat eats something it likes, it licks its paws. That's how a rat says "yum yum!" When it dislikes something, it shakes its head and rubs its face. That's how a rat says "yuck!" When stimulation is applied to the lateral hypothalamus, the rat eats more, but its facial reaction says "yuck!" They dislike the food they want so much. Conversely, when dopamine-blocking drugs are used to turn off the wanting system, rats show no interest in food, but when one squirts sweet juice on the rat's tongue, its facial reaction says "yum yum!" They like it even though they didn't want it. Wanting and liking are neurologically different.

Humans are just big rats without tails. We are poor at predicting how much we will like what we want.

Many addictive drugs work on the dopamine system. No wonder they call it "dope". An experiment with heroin addicts showed that they would work hard to get a morphine injection, and they did, indeed, enjoy the effect when they got it. But when the drug was cut to a low concentration, the subjects rated the injection as no good, but they would work just as hard to get it. It is easier to stimulate the wanting response than the liking response. Same with nicotine. A smoker will do anything for a cigarette, but may take little pleasure in smoking it. This dopamine system that gets us addicted to drugs is the same system that makes us want more food, more sex, and more stuff.

Does this research mean that your brain is out to get you? No, not really. During most of our evolutionary history, heroin, nicotine, and super-size trans-fat burgers were not available. Things we wanted were good for us, and for the survival of our genes. It is because your ancestors had a dopamine jones that you are alive.

While dopamine makes us want things, another brain chemical, serotonin, tends to make us happy and content. Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that accentuates the positive. Drugs like prozac and ecstacy increase serotonin levels, and reduce worry, fear, panic, and sleeplessness. They increase sociability, co-operation, and positive emotion.

In troupes of wild monkeys, low-ranking individuals have low serotonin levels. This apparently causes them to worry more about things like getting beat up or eaten by predators. The alpha monkey has high serotonin level. He doesn't need to worry about being beaten or eaten. In a troupe with no alpha male, a subordinate given prozac will rise to alpha status, assuming, of course, he is lucky enough to not get eaten while he is distracted by campaigning for alpha office.

To review, a little dopamine makes us want more stuff. A lot of dopamine makes us like our stuff, but only for a while. And serotonin makes us more sociable, co-operative, and positive. I don't have data, but I bet serotonin level has little correlation to stuff accumulation.

III. The Solution:

OK, so we have evolved to instinctively be dissatisfied with our lot. Are we doomed by our out-dated instincts to a life of misery and want in this land of plenty? I think not. Understanding the problem is a large part of solving it.

First, remember that it is easier to want than to like. Do I want something new? Of course I do, but will I be happier after I get it? This is a hard question to answer correctly. We now know that we are very poor predictors of the effect of new things on our happiness. How long will I stay happier? This question is even harder to answer. We have seen the effect of adaptation over time reduces the effect of material gain or loss. Usually, but not always, we overestimate the benefit of getting something new.

I think it is more effective to ask "why do I want it?" Is it a positional good? Would I want one if the Joneses didn't have one? Do I want it because my mother or my broke friends think I should have one? Do other people who have one show greater satisfaction? Is the dopamine junkie in my brain tricking me?

Count the cost. Not just the dollars, but with finite time, space, and life energy, what will I have to give up in order to enjoy my new toy?

Second, take control of your life to the extent possible.

A British study showed that people in higher social classes, identified by occupation, had higher life satisfaction. No surprise there, but statistical analysis showed satisfaction correlates to profession, but not to income. The happiest people were the professionals. Professionals enjoy higher social status, and they have more control over their own work and lives. I have never done it, but I bet if you ground up a professional's brain and extracted it with acetone, you could find higher than average serotonin content.

For example, Donald Trump seems to be a happy guy, and I don't think it has much to do with his income. Mr. Trump is happy because he is in control of his life. He does what he wants, or more importantly, what he likes; developing real estate and firing people on television. Compare Homer Simpson, a mythical but spot-on composite everyman working stiff. He is not rich by American standards, but he has everything he needs; a house, a car, a TV, and a refrigerator full of Duff beer. By international standards, he is pretty well off, but he is a miserable sod because he has no control over his life.

Okay, so not everyone can just up and become a real estate tycoon, but there is a simple way to gain more control in your life. Look in your closet, or your garage. Wow, look at all that stuff! How much of that stuff is controlling you? How many hours, how many dollars do you spend storing, maintaining, and tripping over stuff you don't use? My name for this affliction is closet constipation.

For the first 40 years of my life I enjoyed accumulating stuff. Now I double my pleasure by getting rid of the same stuff. I aspire to have nothing in my home that is neither useful nor beautiful.

My wife bought a copy of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing your Life. I have observed that every time she takes that book off the shelf, I get richer because some useless encumbrance leaves our house. The less useless stuff we have, the more useful stuff we have, because we can find the stuff we use.

Letting go of stuff can be a challenge. People tend to overvalue sunk costs. "I paid umpteen dollars for that frazmoputzer. I can't just throw it away." Yes I can. It's not worth what I paid, it's worth what it's worth in utility or beauty.

Here is an example. I love flying ultralight aircraft. 18 years ago, I built a pterodactyl ultralight. It was one of those unusual possessions that gave me happiness exceeding its cost for many years. As years passed, I got distracted by other interests, and I flew less and less. I should have sold it, but I was sure if I did I would wish I had it back. Eventually, I got smart, and I asked the question backwards. Instead of asking "what is it worth to me?" I should ask "if I didn't have it, what would I pay to get one just like it?" The answer at the time was "not much". I sold it cheap after not having flown it in 4 years. I got a little money, but the best thing is I got all that space in my barn. Space which is in peril of being filled with more stuff, but I am proud to say that, so far, the barn is reasonably uncluttered.

My reluctance to sell the ultralight illustrates what psychologists call the endowment effect, that is, we tend to think it would be really hard to get along without something we already have. Consider the example of the coffee mug experiment.

Participants were given a choice between a mug and a sum of money, and asked how much the sum would have to be for them to prefer the cash over the mug. The sum was $3.50 on average. Alternatively, participants were given a mug for keeps. They were then asked how much money they would accept to give up the mug. Now they said they would need on average $7.12. The two conditions used identical mugs. Yet, in as much as money is an indicator of utility, the participants seemed to believe that the mug was improving their lives by over twice as much in the case where it was already theirs. Remember this when evaluating your own stuff.

Third, take note of what things and activities make you happy now, and concentrate on those things, and things like them. The pleasant name for this technique is "pleasant activity training". If being obsessively scientific makes you happy, you could keep a log of all the things you do each day, and a separate log of your mood over several weeks. You could then perform a statistical analysis of the data to see what activities correlate to happier moods. This has been done, and the activities consistently conducive to good moods are such as seeing friends, sports, cultural activities, going out, and visiting new places.

Let's read that list again, shall we? Activities correlating to good moods are seeing friends, sports, cultural activities, going out, and visiting new places. Hey, why isn't shopping on the list? Is there some mistake?

On the face of it, pleasant activities training sounds rather silly. Why should we need to be taught to do things we enjoy? Psychologist Daniel Nettle answers more eloquently than I can, so I will just quote from his book: Happiness; the Science Behind Your Smile.

"The answer may be to question whether peoples' decisions are driven by happiness, or at any rate, by pleasure. The distinction between wanting and liking is of use here. Our minds are equipped with a dopamine drunk wanting system that draws us to compete for a promotion or a higher salary; a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner or 2.4 children. It draws us to these things not because they will make us happy, not even because we like them, though some of them do, but because the ancestors who got the stone age equivalents of these things are our ancestors, and those who did not are biological dead ends. Although we implicitly feel that the things we want in life will make us happy, this may be a particularly cruel trick played by our evolved mind to keep us competing. The things we want in life are the things the evolved mind tells us to want, and it doesn't give a fig about our happiness. All the evidence suggests that you would probably be happier not caring about your promotion and going and building boats or doing volunteer work instead. Moreover, the more important people believe financial success is, the more dissatisfied with both work and family life they are. This means, rather surprisingly, that it is quite possible that people could be so preoccupied with wanting things that they could forget to do things they enjoy."

Fourth, remembering that it is easier to want than to like, enjoy the anticipation. Anticipation is the most reliable part of pleasure. This is doubly important when tempted to buy on credit.

Remembering that it is more fun to get than to have, enjoy the getting process. That's the great thing about do-it-yourselfing. As a parsimonious poor kid, I learned to do-it-myself for economy, but I continue to do-it-myself to maximize the pleasure of getting before having. Instant gratification is accelerated disappointment. Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride.

Lastly, don't be too hard on yourself. You don't need to become a Unitarian monk and take a vow of poverty to be happy. Money may not buy happiness, but poverty never does. Wanting more can keep us working for good and noble ends. Nobody would remember the Good Samaritan if he didn't have the money to help the robbery victim. It's OK to want stuff, and everybody has got to have some stuff.

I hope I have provided some insight into the problem of having too much stuff, but never having enough. By understanding our instincts, I hope we can control them and use them to our benefit. We can live happier lives when we become aware that we are rich because we know we have enough.

©2007 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2007. Why do we Never Have Enough?, /talks/20070513.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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