Entertainment · August 7, 2022

Our brains are programmed to always want more – even if it leads to unhappiness, as studies show

From shoes to clothing, vinyl records to the latest smartphone, people have a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest products.

Now researchers have used computer models to try to explain why we keep craving more and more material things – even when we feel unhappy about it.

According to the findings, as we “adapt” to a higher standard of living and compare ourselves to different standards, we seek more reward.

Do you keep craving more stuff even though it makes you unhappy? Well, according to a computer simulation study, we can probably blame our brains for our relentless pursuit of material goods


Even under favorable circumstances, people often find it difficult to be content with what they have.

While we may initially be excited about a newly purchased car, over time it brings less positive feelings and eventually we start dreaming about the next worthwhile thing to pursue.

According to the experts, two psychological phenomena cause our brain to tirelessly strive for material goods:

relative comparisons: The difference between what we have and what we want or what other people have.

previous expectations: We want our current situation to be as good as previous positive experiences.

Source: Dubey et al. (2022)

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

“From ancient religious texts to modern literature, human history is rich with tales that describe the struggle for eternal happiness,” her paper states.

“Happiness is, paradoxically, one of the most coveted human emotions, and yet achieving it over the long term remains an elusive goal for many people.

“Our findings help explain why we tend to get trapped in a cycle of endless desires and cravings, and may shed light on psychopathologies such as depression, materialism and overconsumption.”

According to experts, two psychological phenomena cause our brain to tirelessly strive for material goods.

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

This means that we often grapple with the difference between what we have and a desired level that we want to achieve.

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

For example, when we have had a particularly pleasant experience, like a cruise, we measure our happiness by the expectation that we will have a similar experience again.

The study’s lead author, Princeton’s Rachit Dubey, told MailOnline: “Our paper was inspired by insights into human happiness (specifically our tendency to want more and more) and we wanted to provide an explanation for this behavior.”

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

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

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

Some of the brains received a simple “reward,” while others received an additional reward by basing their decisions on past expectations and comparing their rewards to others.

The researchers found that the latter group was less happy but learned faster than the former, outperforming them on all tests they conducted.

Even when we enjoy a newly purchased car, it brings with it less positive feelings over time and we eventually start dreaming about the next worthwhile thing, researchers say (file photo).

Even when we enjoy a newly purchased car, it brings with it less positive feelings over time and we eventually start dreaming about the next worthwhile thing, researchers say (file photo).

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

Dubey told MailOnline: “Our computerized simulations suggest there are benefits – if we’re never satisfied, we’re constantly striving to find better results.

“But that also has disadvantages – we constantly devalue what we already have, which in extreme cases can lead to depression and overconsumption.”

Dubey also acknowledged the question of how reliably such computer processes can depict 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 PLoS Computational Biology.


According to scientists who are searching for the “equation for happiness,” the key to living a happy life is to lower your expectations, but not to the point where it makes you miserable.

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

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

More than 18,000 people played the game, giving researchers insight into the connections between performance, expectations and happiness levels among gamers.

They combined the results with MRI scans to gain a deeper understanding and one day create an equation that can “explain the various factors that are important to happiness in each and every one of us.”

In 2016, the same team published an equation linking happiness to equality, finding that greater inequality leads to lower levels of happiness.

For the new job they’ve found, happiness comes with expectations. If you find that lowering expectations increases the likelihood of a positive surprise, but constantly lowering them can make you unhappy – so it’s a matter of finding the right balance.

The authors say we should treat happiness “as a tool and not as a goal in itself,” to give us insight into any given task and guide our actions based on feelings.

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