Why Is It So Hard to Be Content With What We Have?


In Western societies, finding satisfaction with what we have is often a difficult task. We're so bombarded with advertisements and can constantly see the latest and greatest things that are out there. Even if we achieve high levels of wages, many people still find that they are not satisfied with their life situation. Why is that?

This is a question that social scientist and happiness guru Arthur Brooks has been pondering for some time.

Why is it so hard to be content with what you have? Swiss economist Alois Stutzer may have the answer. According to his research, whenever your income increases, the level of income you wish you had also increases, putting contentment seemingly out of reach. So be wary of advice to try and chase down happiness — you may just end up tired.

Stutzer's research paper was published in 2003. In the paper, he made the argument that a person's level of happiness isn't necessarily associated with their income level by itself, but rather by their income aspirations.

Does individual well-being depend on the absolute level of income and consumption or is it relative to one’s aspirations? In a direct empirical test, it is found that higher income aspirations reduce people's utility, ceteris paribus. Individual data on reported satisfaction with life are used as a proxy measure for utility, and income evaluation measures are applied as proxies for people’s aspiration levels. Consistent with processes of adaptation and social comparison, income aspirations increase with people’s income as well as with the average income in the community they live in.

Human beings are constantly making observations and comparisons. In the process of doing that, we undermine our own level of life-satisfaction as we look to see what others have gained through their efforts.

Two processes are theoretically put forward as forming individual aspirations. First, there is individuals’ adaptation to repeated stimuli, as provided by people’s consumption habits. Whereas additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, their effects wear off over time. Thus people get used to their consumption and income level. Second, there are social comparisons with relevant others. It is not the absolute level of income that matters most, but rather one’s position relative to other individuals. Socially comparative or even competitive processes in consumption complement processes of hedonic adaptation. Together, it is suggested, they make people strive for ever higher aspirations.

It appears being satisfied with what we have gets harder the more we succeed. Seems like a vicious cycle, but maybe it's better than the opposite — not aspiring and not trying.

What do you do to have a happy life? What are the perspectives and mindsets that put you into that place of satisfaction? Share your thoughts with us!