The Christmas season is conspicuous consumption time. I recently made my annual trip to the mall, and couldn’t help but think that, somehow, the consumption gets more conspicuous every year. The antiqued jeans get more expensive, the televisions get higher definition, and the Starbucks in the food court keeps on inventing newfangled flavors to mix into my coffee. I guess that’s the genius of capitalism: it keeps on inventing new things for us to want.
But as I observed this frenzy of consumption – there was a long, long line for the new Elmo doll – I couldn’t help but muse on the neural consequences of it all. Here’s the paradox: although per-capita wealth has more than doubled in many industrialized nations over the last fifty years, levels of happiness have flat-lined. Even more dispiriting is the fact that, as countries become more prosperous, depression becomes significantly more common.
What accounts for the misery of the well-off? Two things. First of all, our neurons quickly adapt to the pleasure of high-definition television, or that fancy new car, or the softness of that cashmere sweater. Once we purchase something, we automatically start taking it for granted, and to begin yearning for something new. This phenomenon is built into the brain at a pretty basic level. Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University has spent the last few decades measuring the firing rates of dopamine neurons in the brains of monkeys as they are receiving rewards of fruit juice. His experiments observe a simple protocol: Schultz sounds a loud tone, waits for a few seconds, and then squirts a few ounces of juice into the monkey’s mouth. At first, the dopamine neurons don’t fire until the juice is delivered. The monkey doesn’t get happy until it gets the actual reward. However, once the animal learns that the tone usually predicts the imminent arrival of juice, the same neurons begin firing at the sound of the tone, instead of the sweet reward. The noise now triggers the same burst of pleasure that was once reserved for the juice; it has become a neural proxy for the expected reward. Finally, when monkeys expect juice but don’t get any (the tone wasn’t followed by a reward), their dopamine neurons fired at a very low rate, as if expressing disappointment.
What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all about anticipation. Our cells are constantly adapting to happiness, lavishing their bursts of chemical pleasure instead onto our expectations of pleasure. As soon as we enjoy the juice we begin to ignore it, and start looking for the next pleasurable thing. The economist Philip Brickman referred to this process as the “hedonic treadmill”. We are wired to always want more, no matter how much we already have.
But wait, it gets worse. Dopaminergic adaptation explains why we can’t buy ourselves happiness. But as the mental health statistics demonstrate, all our wealth doesn’t just not make us happy, it also makes us sad. Why? A big part of the problem is that conspicuous consumption I mentioned earlier. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy–their dopamine neurons have already adapted to the luxury good–but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex or Casio has been devalued by the costlier item. Multiply this same phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so depressive. Not only do their dopamine neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expectations. Many of these expectations are bound to be unfulfilled – we can’t all wear Rolexes – and so we end up feeling like a monkey that hasn’t gotten any juice.
PS. So what should we do about this? Well, obviously we can’t revert back to communism. But I tend to agree with the economist Robert Frank, who advocates a tax on conspicuous consumption, since flashy spending simply raises expectations, making the rich no happier and everyone else less happy.