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Health

Why are people 'unhappy' even when their material needs are met? Here are some thoughtful answers.

Material needs are just the beginning.

happy, unhappy americans, materialsim
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Why are some people who have their material needs met unhappy?

What truly makes us happy? Psychologists, social scientists, artists, religious authorities and philosophers have grappled with this question for centuries and it doesn’t seem that anyone has completely cracked the code.

It’s an important question a lot of people are asking in America where happiness seems to be on the decline. A U.N. report from 2019 found that when Americans rated their level of happiness on a scale of 1 to 3, the average person gave themselves a 2.18. That’s down from a high of 2.28 in the 1980s.

What’s interesting is that this decline comes during a period in which Americans have become richer. Obviously, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does provide the security necessary to find contentment.

Spencer Greenberg, a mathematician and entrepreneur in the field of social science, asked his followers on Twitter: “Why do you think that many people are unhappy even when they have all their material needs met?” and the answers were thoughtful and varied.


Some believe that many people who have their material needs met aren’t happy because they compare themselves to others who are better off, or at least they appear to be, on social media.

Could it be that the quest for possessions and status are a distraction from what truly makes us happy?

There is a theory on happiness put forth by Benjamin Hoff in his book “The Tao of Pooh” that does a good job of describing the happiness problem. Hoff believes that future thinking makes people unhappy because they fail to find happiness where it exists—in the moment.

"Our religions, sciences, and business ethics have tried their hardest to convince us that there is a Great Reward waiting for us somewhere, and that what we have to do is spend our lives working like lunatics to catch up with it," Hoff writes.

"Whether it's up in the sky, behind the next molecule, or in the executive suite ... somehow always farther along than we are—just down the road, on the other side of the world, past the moon, beyond the stars... A way of life that keeps saying, 'Around the next corner, above the next step,' works against the natural order of things and makes it so difficult to be happy and good," Hoff continues.

Some believe that we’ve evolved to live in struggle so we're not sure how to process having our basic material needs met.

​Does having our material needs met mean anything if we don’t have what really matters?


The responses show that there are a lot of factors that contribute to finding true happiness. But for those whose material needs are met and they’re still unhappy, there’s one practice that’s scientifically proven to make people happier, practicing gratitude.

Those who are grateful are less inclined to feel chronically unsatisfied and to waste their energy pursuing things that fail to create happiness in the first place.

“Experiencing gratitude activates neurotransmitters like dopamine, which we associate with pleasure, and serotonin, which regulates our mood,” Amy E. Keller, PsyD, MFT is quoted as saying in Verywell Mind. “It also causes the brain to release oxytocin, a hormone which induces feelings like trust and generosity which promotes social bonding, and feeling connected."

There are many different ways to practice gratitude but the first step is focusing on what we have instead of what we lack. Waking up every morning and feeling grateful for the small things in life will set us further down the path to happiness than waking up pondering the infinite list of what we don’t.

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