Science

Our brains are programmed to keep wanting more – even if it leads to unhappiness, study shows 

From shoes to clothes, vinyl records and the latest smartphone, humans have a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest products.

Now, researchers have used computer models to try and explain why we constantly crave more and more material things – even when they make us feel miserable.

According to the findings, we pursue more rewards when we become ‘habituated’ to a higher standard of living and compare ourselves to various standards. 

Do you crave more and more stuff even though it’s making you miserable? Well, we can probably blame our brains for our relentless pursuit of material goods, according to a computer simulation study

WHY DO WE ALWAYS WANT MORE? 

Even in favorable circumstances, humans often find it hard to remain happy with what they’ve got. 

While we might enjoy a newly bought car initially, over time it brings fewer positive feelings and we eventually begin dreaming of the next rewarding thing to pursue. 

According to the experts, two psychological phenomena mean our brains relentlessly pursuit material goods:

Relative comparisons: The difference between what we have and what we want, or what other people have. 

Prior expectations: Wanting our current situation to be as good as prior positive experiences.  

Source: Dubey et al (2022) 

The new study was led by researchers at Princeton University’s Department of Psychology in New Jersey. 

‘From ancient religious texts to modern literature, human history abounds with tales describing the struggle to achieve ever-lasting happiness,’ they say in their paper.

‘Paradoxically, happiness is one of the most sought-after human emotions, yet achieving it over the long-term remains an elusive goal for many people.

‘Our results help explain why we are prone to becoming trapped in a cycle of never-ending wants and desires, and may shed light on psychopathologies such as depression, materialism and overconsumption.’ 

According to the experts, two psychological phenomena mean our brains relentlessly pursuit material goods. 

Firstly, human happiness is influenced by a phenomenon called ‘relative comparisons’.

This means that we’re often concerned with the difference between what we have and a desired level that we wish to achieve.

Secondly, what it takes to be happy depends on our prior expectations, but these expectations can change over time.

For example, if we’ve received a particularly pleasant experience, like being taken on a cruise, then we’ll judge our happiness against the expectation to have a similar experience again.

Lead study author Rachit Dubey at Princeton told MailOnline: ‘Our paper was inspired by findings about human happiness (particularly our propensity to keep wanting more) and we wanted to provide an explanation for this behaviour.’ 

In their experiments, the team created computer simulated agents to represent real human ‘brains’ and how humans think, and taught them ‘reinforcement learning’.

Dubey said: ‘Reinforcement learning methods focus on training an agent (e.g., a robot) so that the agent learns how to map situations to actions (e.g., learning how to play chess). 

‘The guiding principle of these methods is that they train agents using rewards – they provide positive rewards to desired behaviors and/or negative rewards to undesired ones.’ 

Some of the brains were given a simple ‘reward’, while others were given an extra reward when they based decisions on prior expectations and on comparing their rewards with others.  

Researchers found the latter group was less happy, but learned faster than the former, and outperformed them in all the tests they carried out. 

While we might enjoy a newly bought car, over time it brings fewer positive feelings and we eventually begin dreaming of the next rewarding thing to pursue, researchers say (file photo)

While we might enjoy a newly bought car, over time it brings fewer positive feelings and we eventually begin dreaming of the next rewarding thing to pursue, researchers say (file photo)

This suggests we are going to be less happy the more we’re rewarded when comparing ourselves to various standards.

Dubey told MailOnline: ‘Our computer-based simulations suggest that it has advantages – if we are never satisfied, we are constantly driven to find better outcomes. 

‘However, this also has disadvantages – we are constantly devaluing what we already have, which in extreme cases, can result in depression and overconsumption.’ 

Dubey also acknowledged the question of how reliably such computer methods can map human behaviour. 

‘Caution must be exercised when generalizing our simulation-based results to real-world scenarios,’ he told MailOnline. 

The team’s paper has been published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.

SCIENTISTS SUGGEST THE KEY TO HAPPINESS IS LOWERING YOUR EXPECTATIONS

Lowering your expectations, but not so far it leaves you miserable, is the key to a happy life, according to scientists searching for the ‘equation for happiness’.

In 2021, experts from University College London launched the Happiness Project, a search for a simple equation to explain what makes us happy.

To determine happiness levels they launched a mobile app that encouraged players to make risky decisions and say how they thought they would perform. 

More than 18,000 people played the game, giving the researchers an insight into links between performance, expectations and happiness levels in players. 

They paired findings with MRI scans to gain a deeper understanding and one day create an equation that can ‘explain the different factors that matter for happiness in each and every one of us.’

The same team published an equation in 2016 that linked happiness the equality, finding greater inequality leads to lower levels of happiness. 

For the new work they found happiness is linked to expectations. Finding that lowering expectations increases the likelihood of a positive surprise, but constantly lowering them can leave you unhappy – so it is about finding the right balance. 

The authors say we should treat happiness ‘as a tool rather than a goal in its own right,’ to give us insight into any given task and direct our actions based on feeling. 

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