The Frontal Cortex

When Wants Become Needs

A few days ago, I lamented the rise of conspicuous consumption, and wondered whether all our luxuries were actually making us depressed. My logic was simple: we adapt to what we have – it stops making us happy – but we are constantly being barraged with all sorts of new needs, like HDTV’s, and blu-ray DVD’s, and copper saute pans. Many of these expecations are bound to be unfulfilled, and that disappoints our dopamine neurons, which doesn’t feel good.

Well, here’s further evidence that Americans are stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Every year, we take more and more things for granted. Our wants have a way of becoming needs:


  1. #1 tirta
    December 14, 2006

    I’m interested in your use of the word “stuck”. Isn’t hedonic treadmill the consequence of our kind of history and civilisation? If there’s a problem with it, as you’ve alluded to, it has to be the economic problem of purchasing power gap and inequality, for there wouldn’t be any depression if everyone can consume what they need/want.

    The maid today has a better life than Abraham Lincoln (in absolute material terms — access to your blog and cable tv, for example — as opposed to relative happiness measure which stays roughly the same across era) precisely because of the continuous conversion of wants to needs by some invisible hands. What’s your thought on this?

  2. #2
    December 15, 2006

    Thanks for the comment. And I completely agree: inequality certainly exacerbates the problem. (Seeing somebody wearing a Rolex makes our Timex seem cheap.) I also agree that the maid today has a better life, in many respects, than the Rockefellers of the 19th century. They live longer, have televisions, iPods, clean water, etc. But what’s so interesting about all this new stuff – and our society excels at making us want stuff – is that it doesn’t make us happier. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Why wealth goes hand in hand with increased rates of depression is a very complicated question, but I engaged in some speculation here:

  3. #3 Katherine
    December 15, 2006

    This is a very interesting study. Thank you for posting it! I think people really do need to sit back and think about how lucky they are and how good they have it.

    On the other hand, I think that some of these items make the comparison across time harder to make. Many jobs would not work as well today without the invention of a cell phone, or especially, computer with high-speed internet access. If you have one of those jobs, you “need” those things. In order to be a competitive scientist applicant today to professor jobs (or to make tenure), you’re expected to have published much more per year than what was once expected. This is largely due to technology advances that move research more quickly. Likewise, the invention of the washing mashine, dishwasher, and microwave allow people to work longer hours, so now careers sort of expect you to work those longer hours.

    I really can’t make a case for a TV set or cable. I don’t think you can make much of a case for air conditioning, either, unless it’s the global warming case. As for the car, first of all, that went down, and secondly that’s because people often can’t get jobs close to home and public transportation sucks.

    Don’t get me wrong — I think that most of these numbers are due to people’s constant shift in thinking they “need” something when they don’t, but part of it is that society itself shifts so that you end up actually needing some things after a while.

  4. #4 tirta
    December 15, 2006

    Two points in response. One, you’re interested in why all this stuff doesn’t make us happier. My two cents from psychological perspective is because it can’t. Happiness works like a scaled compass — along the thesis of Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness — and a good compass doesn’t point to the same direction all the time, be it the maid’s or the Rockefeller’s. There’s a fixed limit on the amount of continuous positive emotion to be experienced by any member of our species, by any means available.

    Two, I’m not really sure if the opposite is the case. How would one objectively compare the rate of depression between different eras? Isn’t it partly a matter of more variability: since you have bigger population, some people end up more depressed and some others end up filthy rich, but the average folks stay just right in the middle?

  5. #5 Matthew Cornell
    November 20, 2008

    What’s interesting in the depressed economic climate is how quickly people drop these “needs.” Outside of Walmart (I have to think about that one), inexpensive inessentials are the first to go. As you imply, this should tell us something about the cultural or evolutionary pressures to behave like this. Are we wired to consume? Related is our apparent bias toward shorter-term thinking by default.

    Thanks for the post!

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