Why are people 'unhappy' even when their material needs are met? Here are some thoughtful answers.
Material needs are just the beginning.
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.
\u201cA question for you: why do you think that many people are unhappy even when they have all their material needs met?\u201d— Spencer Greenberg \ud83d\udd0d (@Spencer Greenberg \ud83d\udd0d) 1663246113
\u201cThis THE question of the 21st century, I think. Thx @SpencrGreenberg\u201d— Nick Gillespie (@Nick Gillespie) 1663248850
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.
Comparison is a biggie. And unmet societal norms/milestones, perhaps, depending on how important a person finds them— Cat (@ritavita4) September 15, 2022
Because we are hardwired for comparisons. And we compare our insides to others outsides— Karen Tibbals (@KarenTibbals) September 15, 2022
People are wired to care about positional status as much or more than absolute well-being. And the globalization of media and communications means that people are comparing themselves to the richest in the world instead of solely within their community, making them feel poorer.— corey_lanum (@corey_lanum) September 15, 2022
Headonic treadmill, need for control, social comparisons, negativity bias.— Isidro Landa, Ph.D. (@LandaIsidro) September 15, 2022
Humans used to not be able to look online at their peers in the same relative social castes and compare their qualities of life. It's a different level of perspective as opposed to the Average Joe/celebrity of decades past.— Nick Mordowanec (@NickMordo) September 15, 2022
Could it be that the quest for possessions and status are a distraction from what truly makes us happy?
But I also think sometimes people are not reflective enough to realise that they don't really need the things they think they need - e.g., they might be sad that they can't afford luxuries, but they could theoretically stop caring about this— Amber Dawn (@contemplatonist) September 15, 2022
Capitalism teaches us that material needs are only the tip of the iceberg and that additional possessions will compound to happiness. Happiness itself is a misnomer. What humans truly seek is fulfillment - something entirely outside of material needs.— Justin W. Waldrop (@JustinWWaldrop) September 15, 2022
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.
That’s how humans are, we think we will be happy WHEN…. (home, car, relationship…) and then that wears off and we reach for the next thing and next and never happen— ♡ 🌱 (@VeganSicilian) September 15, 2022
Some believe that we’ve evolved to live in struggle so we're not sure how to process having our basic material needs met.
Because happiness derived from material satiety is not an outcome of evolution. Better said, such happiness did not determine survival and reproduction likelihood in the past. If it had, more people would experience it. Question is whether we can/should alter that going forward— James McQuivey (@jmcquivey) September 15, 2022
When we don’t have to focus on and work with others to get get enough calories/warmth/safety, we worry about relationships/reputation/insecurities/etc— Spencer🙏🔍📚🥕🚲🧘♂️🚐🌐 (@spencemo_c) September 15, 2022
No real goals and no real struggle.— Brad Gruetzmacher (@vongruetz) September 15, 2022
Does having our material needs met mean anything if we don’t have what really matters?
Because the most important things in life aren’t material.— The BCS Pierogi Penguin | SaulSweep2023 (@DividingByZer0s) September 15, 2022
1. Genetic predisposition. (underrated)— josefyau (@josefyau1) September 15, 2022
2. Few or no close, meaningful relationships. (appropriately rated)
2. Transcendental goals. (underrated)
Their immaterial (spiritual) needs aren't being met.— RobertPaulV (@RobertPaulV79) September 15, 2022
Abd social media being weaponized against us.— Martin (@mbrochh) September 15, 2022
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.