Our Material World – The recipe for unhappiness


Human Nature

Human nature seems to put us on a constant charge toward that which makes us un-happy. The marketing machines out there are all selling products and services which we perceive WILL make us happier; the neighbors buy into this and so must we? This process means we need to work harder, work longer all the while spending less time doing the things we like with the people we love; all in pursuit of that little bit more.

So I suppose, in a nutshell, the recipe for unhappiness is this: ‘If you want to be unhappy (or a little unhappier) just spend your life chasing that little bit more: more money, more material stuff and keeping up with the neighbors’.

Just a little bit more

One of my lasting memories of school was when my teacher rolled into an anecdote and spoke of the richest man in the world who, when asked what would make him happy replied: ‘just a little bit more’. That’s a greedy sentiment isn’t it? Actually maybe it isn’t! Just ask the happiest people you know and they will always say the same thing when asked what they want: ‘just a little bit more’ another child, a pay rise, that new car; the list goes on and on.

Indeed chasing that little bit more is clearly a core part of our programming, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the intrinsic need for more has spurned us on to pioneer in all manner of human goals and through this we have achieved virtually unquantifiable attainment. However the flipside of that achievement is plain old greed, which (for example) has directly induced global warming – seriously harming our planet.

So what can we do about it if we are greedy by nature? So I suppose that as this drive for more is part of our nature, we are doomed to strive for what we don’t have and to spend less and less time doing what we value most. Not really – I mean does anyone in their winter years really advise on working longer and harder? No. Do they advise on putting in longer hours trying to gain recognition or a promotion? Nope. They will simply advise to make the most of the time you have with the people that matter and doing the things that make you happy.


I was recently in Madrid, traveling is a huge passion of mine, as you will notice from my blog, and took the time to visit the Prado Museum where I came across a 400 year old still life, painted by an inspirational artist called Cotan. This is only one of 6 (Cotan) paintings still in existence and the ethos of the artist was simplicity, to revel in the basic things in life over and above rich worldly goods; this is perfectly outlined in the painting below.

Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit - 1602, Museo del Prado Madrid

Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit – 1602, Museo del Prado Madrid

Shortly after completing his works Cotan became a recluse and chose the life of a monk. I am not saying for one second that this is the path to happiness for everyone; but the principle is a powerful one majestically summed up in his work. Chasing the simple things in life is a far more noble and achievable quest than the alternative; the hamster wheel approach of pursuing the riches on the horizon; anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

In conclusion

What should we do? As discussed above the simplest explanation is often the most effective and in my humble opinion, the recipes for greater unhappiness and happiness are:

To be a little but more unhappy – simply spend the rest of your life chasing that little bit more and keeping up with the Jones’s.

To be that little bit happier – spend the rest of your life chasing ways to make the most of what you have. Focus on the needs and not the wants and you wont go far wrong.

The latter point is probably more of a journey rather than a destination for many of us in the modern world, but it is surely a path to greater happiness, to greater simplicity. Should we only live once then it has to be a path worth taking!


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