Our brains are hardwired to keep wanting more – even if it leads to unhappiness, studies show

From shoes and clothes to vinyl records and the latest smartphone, humans have a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest products.

Now researchers have used computer models to try to explain why we constantly crave more and more material things – even when they make us feel miserable.

According to the results, we seek more rewards when we “get used” to a higher standard of living and compare ourselves to various standards.

Do you crave more and more things even though it makes you unhappy? Well, we can probably blame our brains for our relentless pursuit of material possessions, according to a computer simulation study


Even in favorable circumstances, humans often find it difficult to remain satisfied with what they have.

Although we may enjoy a newly purchased car at first, over time it brings fewer positive feelings and we eventually begin to dream of the next rewarding thing to pursue.

According to experts, two psychological phenomena mean that our brain relentlessly searches for material goods:

Relative comparisons: The difference between what we have and what we want, or what others have.

Previous expectations: Wanting our current situation to be as good as previous positive experiences.

Source: Dubey et al (2022)

The new study was conducted by researchers from the Department of Psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“From ancient religious texts to modern literature, human history is replete with stories describing the struggle to achieve eternal happiness,” they say in their article.

“Paradoxically, happiness is one of the most sought-after human emotions, but achieving it over the long term remains an elusive goal for many people.

“Our findings help explain why we are prone to being trapped in an endless cycle of wants and desires, and may shed light on psychopathologies such as depression, materialism and overconsumption.”

According to experts, two psychological phenomena mean that our brains relentlessly pursue material possessions.

First, human happiness is influenced by a phenomenon called “relative comparisons.”

This means that we are often concerned with the difference between what we have and the desired level we wish to achieve.

Second, what it takes to be happy depends on our past expectations, but those expectations can change over time.

For example, if we have had a particularly pleasant experience, such as being taken on a cruise, then we will judge our happiness relative to the expectation of having a similar experience again.

The study’s lead author, Rachit Dubey at Princeton, told MailOnline: ‘Our article was inspired by findings about human happiness (specifically our propensity to keep wanting more) and we wanted to provide an explanation to this behavior.”

In their experiments, the team created computer-simulated agents to represent real human ‘brains’ and the way humans think, and taught them ‘reinforcement learning’.

Dubey said, “Reinforcement learning methods focus on training an agent (e.g., a robot) so that the agent learns to associate situations with actions (e.g., learning to play chess ).

“The guiding principle of these methods is that they train agents using rewards: they offer positive rewards to desired behaviors and/or negative rewards to undesirable behaviors.”

Some of the masterminds received a simple “reward,” while others received an additional reward for basing their decisions on prior expectations and comparing their rewards with others.

The researchers found that the latter group was less happy, but learned faster than the former and outperformed them in every test they took.

Although we may enjoy a newly purchased car, over time it brings less positive feelings and we eventually start daydreaming about the next rewarding thing to pursue, researchers say (file photo)

Although we may enjoy a newly purchased car, over time it brings less positive feelings and we eventually start daydreaming about the next rewarding thing to pursue, researchers say (file photo)

This suggests that we are going to be less happy the more we are rewarded when we compare ourselves to different standards.

Dubey told MailOnline: ‘Our computer simulations suggest it has benefits – if we’re ever unsatisfied, we’re constantly pushed to find better results.

“However, it also has downsides – we are constantly devaluing what we already have, which in extreme cases can lead to depression and overconsumption.”

Dubey also acknowledged the question of how reliably these computational methods can map human behavior.

‘Caution should be exercised when generalizing our simulation-based results to real-world scenarios,’ he told MailOnline.

The team’s paper was published in the journal Computational Biology PLoS.


Lowering your expectations, but not to the point where you’re unhappy, is the key to a happy life, according to scientists researching “The Happiness Equation.”

In 2021, experts from the University College London launched the Happiness Project, a search for a simple equation to explain what makes us happy.

To determine happiness levels, they launched a mobile app that encouraged players to make risky decisions and say how they thought they would perform.

More than 18,000 people have played the game, giving researchers insight into the links between player performance, expectations and happiness levels.

They paired the results with MRI scans to deepen their understanding and one day create an equation that can “explain the various factors that matter to the happiness of all of us.”

The same team published an equation in 2016 that linked happiness to equality, finding that greater inequality leads to lower levels of happiness.

For the new job they have found, happiness is tied to expectations. Finding that lowering expectations increases the likelihood of a positive surprise, but constantly lowering them can make you unhappy – so it’s about finding the right balance.

The authors say we should treat happiness “as a tool rather than a goal in its own right,” to give us insight into any given task and direct our actions based on our feelings.

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