How to want less

In early 2022, Arthur C. Brooks, the host of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast, published this article in The Atlantic:

If you are seeking something meaningful to read over summer, I highly recommend this article.

If you would like the executive summary, please read on:

  • Satisfaction—the joy from fulfillment of our wishes or expectations—is evanescent. No matter what we achieve, see, acquire, or do, it seems to slip from our grasp. We crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, and then it vanishes. But we never give up on our quest to get and hold on to it.
  • Even the most successful people suffer from the dissatisfaction problem. An accomplishment can thrill you for a day or a week—maybe a month, never more—and then we reach for the next rung on the ladder.
  • Everyone has dreams, and they beckon with promises of sweet, lasting satisfaction if you achieve them. But dreams are liars. When they come true, it’s … fine, for a while. And then a new dream appears.  It’s almost as if our brains are programmed to prevent us from enjoying anything for very long.
  • In fact, they are. The term homeostasis was introduced in 1926 by a physiologist named Walter B. Cannon, who showed in his book The Wisdom of the Body that we have built-in mechanisms to regulate our temperature, as well as our levels of oxygen, water, salt, sugar, protein, fat, and calcium. But the concept applies much more broadly than that: To survive, all living systems tend to maintain stable conditions as best they can.
  • As the brain becomes used to continual drug-induced production of dopamine—the neurotransmitter of pleasure, which plays a large role in nearly all addictive behaviours—it steeply curtails ordinary production, making another hit necessary simply to feel normal.
  • The same set of principles works on our emotions. When you get an emotional shock—good or bad—your brain wants to re-equilibrate, making it hard to stay on the high or low for very long.
  • If you base your sense of self-worth on success—money, power, prestige—you will run from victory to victory, initially to keep feeling good, and then to avoid feeling awful.
  • The unending race against the headwinds of homeostasis has a name: the “hedonic treadmill.”
  • Scholars argue over whether our happiness has an immutable set point, or if it might move around a little over the course of our life due to general circumstances. But no one has ever found that immediate bliss from a major victory or achievement will endure. As for money, more of it helps up to a point—it can buy things and services that relieve the problems of poverty, which are sources of unhappiness. But forever chasing money as a source of enduring satisfaction simply does not work.
  • Yet even if you recognize all this, getting off the treadmill is hard. It feels dangerous. Our urge for more is quite powerful, but stronger still is our resistance to less. That’s one of the insights that earned Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics.
  • According to evolutionary psychology, our tendency to strive for more is perfectly understandable. Throughout most of human history, starvation loomed closer than it does, for the most part, today. 
  • Scholars have shown that our acquisitive tendencies persist amid plenty and regularly exceed our needs. This owes to our vestigial urges—software that still exists in our brains from ancient times.
  • Competing with rivals for mates helps explain our weird fixation on social comparison. When we think about satisfaction from success (or possessions or fitness or good looks), there’s another element to consider: Success is relative. Satisfaction requires not just that you continuously run in place on your own hedonic treadmill, but that you run slightly faster than other people are running on theirs. This is why people with hundreds of millions of dollars can feel like failures if their friends are billionaires.
  • At some level, we all know that social comparison is ridiculous and harmful, and extensive research confirms this: “Keeping up with the Joneses” is associated with anxiety and even depression. In a series of experiments that required subjects to solve puzzles, for instance, the unhappiest people were consistently those paying the most attention to how they performed relative to other subjects. 
  • It makes no sense in modern life to use our energies to have five cars, five bathrooms, or even five pairs of sneakers, but we just … want them. Neuroscientists have looked into this. Dopamine is excreted in response to thoughts about buying new thingswinning moneyacquiring more power or famehaving new sexual partners. The brain evolved to reward us for the behaviours that kept us alive and made us more likely to pass on our DNA. This may be an anachronism, at least to some degree, but it is a fact of our lives nonetheless.
  • The satisfaction problem is very similar to the Buddha’s first “Noble Truth”: that life is suffering—duhkha in Sanskrit, also translated as “dissatisfaction”—and that the cause of this suffering is craving, desire, and attachment to worldly things.
  • That said, no one claims worldly rewards are inherently evil. In fact, they can be used for great good. Money is crucial for a functioning society and supporting your family; power can be wielded to lift others up. But as attachments—as ends instead of means—the problem is simple: They cannot satisfy.
  • As we grow older in the West, we generally think we should have a lot to show for our lives—a lot of trophies. According to numerous Eastern philosophies, this is backwards. As we age, we shouldn’t accumulate more to represent ourselves, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, to find happiness and peace.
  • According to Arthur, the key to satisfaction is to commit to stop trying to add more and more, but instead start taking things away.
  • The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.
  • This all feeds beautifully into our article on the book The Gap and the Gain  Please feel free to share these articles with anyone you think would benefit from reading them.


Recent Insights
GAIA icon

Looking for a GAIA firm near you?


You are now leaving GAIA’s website. GAIA is not responsible for the content, accuracy, or timeliness and does not make any warranties, expressed or implied, with regard to the information obtained from other websites. These links from are provided for navigational purposes only and should not be construed as either a recommendation or an offer to buy or sell any securities.