- Experts believe that the human brain might be aspirational by default.
- This may have provided evolutionary advantages but could cause unhappiness in the modern world.
- Being aware of how your mind works can allow you to find alternative ways of thinking.
A new outfit. The latest gadget. That next promotion.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting these sorts of things.
And when we get them, they might make us happier.
For a time, anyway.
New things eventually lose their shine and then our brains start looking for what’s next.
According to new research using statistical modeling, these desires may have provided evolutionary advantages to early humans. However, in the world we live in today it could lead to overconsumption and decreased happiness.
So, how can we use these findings to work around our inner workings and learn to be happy with what we have?
One way that our brains are wired for dissatisfaction is called the “paradox of choice.”
Most people would intuitively agree that they like to be given options. But experts say that too many options, especially if they’re similar, actually make us less happy.
“I’ve always considered too many choices as being one of the sources of constant unhappiness because having too many choices makes one less happy with the choice they’ve made,” Dr. Danesh Alam, the medical director of behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Illinois, told Healthline. “There’s always something [you] could have picked that might have been better.”
And the dissatisfaction doesn’t necessarily stop after the decision’s made.
“You’d think that once you made the choice you’d move on. But once you’ve made the choice you’re still stuck at ‘this or that would have been better,’” Alam said.
So what can you do about it?
Sheila M. Dowd, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told Healthline that, “creating a ‘pros and cons list’ might help reduce some of the options.”
“That does take time, but it will help you determine and prioritize your own goals and thereby help you rank those options,” she said.
Dr. Jonathan L. Kaplan, an assistant professor of psychiatry and internal medicine who’s also at Rush University Medical Center, told Healthline that it helps to recognize not all decisions are equally important.
“If this is a high importance, high consequence decision, then [you] should be prompted to take extra time in considering the options,” Kaplan said. “However, if this is a low importance, low consequence decision, then it is less important to consider all options and simply recognize that any option is good and likely to lead to approximately the same satisfaction with the outcome.”
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, an expert in psychiatry and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California and BrainfoodMD, told Healthline he agreed with this practice.
“Settling for ‘good enough’ is essential in a situation with too many choices. In my work with high-achieving patients, I always emphasize the statement that ‘the enemy of good is better,’” Dimitriu said.
“Indeed, finding peace with ‘good enough’ and actually enjoying it — through gratitude, mindfulness, etc. — may lead to a less than optimal choice, but a significantly higher level of satisfaction,” added Dimitriu.
What’s sometimes called the “hedonic treadmill” is another phenomenon that can lock you in a cycle of unhappiness.
Essentially, it means that happiness brought on by achievement is usually fleeting.
“People quickly adapt to life improvements and it becomes their ‘new normal.’ This highlights how tricky happiness can be,” said Dowd.
“As expectations of ourselves about our own… achievement grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach a new level of achievement and therefore more difficult to have the positive feelings of such achievement,” said Kaplan.
“Similarly, the novelty of a new achievement is important. The first time a certain achievement is attained it is highly rewarding; however, there is a diminishing return for the same type of achievement in the future,” he added.
Experts believe that practicing mindfulness is one way to avoid getting caught up in achievement and overconsumption.
There comes a point when “it’s time to change your aspirations and switch from wanting to enjoying,” said Dimitriu.
“I think it is essential to have as much practice using the brake as using the gas pedal,” he added.
“Part of human nature is to attempt to improve and this has driven us to be successful in various ways,” said Alam.
And while this new research sheds light on exactly how some of these mechanisms could be beneficial, be aware that the consequences have been understood for some time.
“One of the things that you have to look at is that [marketers] study our reward systems much more than we think. The seduction of modern marketing techniques always leaves you feeling that you want more,” Alam said.
So now that you know that in some ways your mind can work toward your own unhappiness, what can you do to stop it?
“Those individuals who are clear about what they want every time tend to do a little bit better than those who are constantly unsure of what they want,” said Alam.
He advised that “preparation around choices, meditation, self-care, and a self-awareness as to your own limits, coping style, and personality are all important for making sure your choices are aligning with who you are.”
“One great way to shake things up is to clarify and connect with your life goals. You can work with a therapist to help you do a values assessment or do it on your own,” said Dowd.
Dimitriu suggested, “mindfulness, more time with family, or more unscheduled time to pursue interests or appreciate and use the things you have.”
“Other important gratitude practices include sharing gratitude with others, asking ourselves what we are grateful for, and perhaps even making a list of things, reminding oneself what wonderful things others have done for us, and finally remembering times in one’s life that were not as good as they are now and being grateful for how things are now,” said Kaplan.
“Or if things are not good now, remembering that they will not always be this way forever,” Kaplan added.