Here’s Seth Godin:
A journalist asked me, Most people have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?
What you have doesn’t make you unhappy. What you want does.
And want is created by us, the marketers.
Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy.
It’s interesting to note that marketers trying to maintain market share have a lot of work to do in reminding us that we’re happy.
I think it’s also important to note that our central nervous system conspires with advertisers to make us eternally unsatisfied. The key point is habituation: we very quickly adapt to sources of pleasure, so that the shiny new house/iPod/sports car/t-shirt/etc is taken for granted and stops making us happy. (You can also understand this in terms of dopamine neurons which cease firing in response to a rewarding stimulus once the reward becomes predictable.) The economist Philip Brickman refers to this process as the “hedonic treadmill”. Because of our ungrateful brain, we are wired to always want more no matter how much we already have. This is why levels of happiness in America, Western Europe and Japan have largely flat-lined over the last fifty years, even as material wealth has dramatically increased.
Obviously, the surfeit of ads doesn’t help, especially since many ads emphasize positional goods, or products whose appeal is that they signal your social position. When someone wears a Rolex watch – a classic positional good – they don’t make themselves happy (their brain has 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 has been devalued by the costlier item. Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products – from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes – and you can begin to see why having more doesn’t make us happier. As Adam Smith observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Riches leave a man always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow.”