Dopamine, Porsches, and The White Lotus

Why do we want things?

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Why do we want things?

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

- attributed to Dave Ramsey but that’s besides the point

Our behavior is driven by wanting things – how we go about our daily lives, the actions we take, the people we spend our time with.

There are needs, and there are wants. A need is necessary to live and function. A want is something that can improve the quality of our lives. As civilization has evolved, what were previously wants have turned into needs. Certain things become table stakes, and over time there are more needs required to function.

Some of these “evolved” needs are universal — Clothing. Electricity. Light. Heat. Wi-Fi. A place to live. A phone.

Other evolved needs are geographically unique — Air conditioning in the South. Winter clothing in the Northeast. An umbrella in London. A parking permit in LA (don’t take your chances, they will find you).

Sure, maybe you could survive without these “evolved needs,” but it would be pretty hard to function in modern society without them. However, had you asked someone a century or two ago, many of these modern needs either 1) didn’t exist yet, or 2) were merely luxuries.

When luxuries become necessities, it’s hard to turn back.

As a society advances, the list of needs continues to grow. But before those needs were needs, they were wants. And if you think about it, almost everything we do boils down to this primitive urge to want.

Why Do We Want Things?

At the most basic level, we want things for a few reasons: to feel good, to feel excitement or novelty, or because other people want them.

1) To feel good

Many human behaviors are rewarded with pleasurable feelings caused by the chemical dopamine. Nearly all of us have a natural addiction to it. After all, who doesn’t want to feel good?

As a result, we want things that release dopamine and satisfy that natural addiction. The addiction to dopamine can be productive or harmful, depending on how we harness it.

For example, exercise releases dopamine, which explains why you hear of people who work out often becoming addicted (like a “runner’s high”).

On the flip side, scrolling through social media, eating junk food, and shopping also release dopamine. It’s the reason so many of us instinctually open social media after pulling out our phones, without even thinking about it. Our brain is wired to seek dopamine.

As we encounter stressors in everyday life, seeking dopamine is one of our brain’s natural responses, which is why we tend to want things that create more of this lovely chemical.

2) To feel excitement or novelty

We don’t just want things because of dopamine, though. We humans also have a tendency to get bored easily. Our discomfort with boredom is actually becoming a major problem, especially as of late where we constantly have a million things competing for our limited attention (but that’s a topic for another day).

There’s a widely discussed phenomenon of the “hedonic treadmill” – an idea that states that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.

Let’s paint a picture. Imagine Peter, who graduates college and earns $60k/year in his first job in New York City. He’s just struggling to scrape by, he spends frugally, rarely (if ever) eats out, but he’s working his butt off for a raise. Then he gets a raise to $80k/year. Suddenly, he can afford to try out that restaurant across the street. He can join his friends with tickets to shows & cool events. A few years later, he gets a promotion to $100k/year. Let’s upgrade that wardrobe. That more expensive apartment closer to work? Sounds pretty nice. His friends are doing these things, and he makes more money, so he might as well, right?

This is the hedonic treadmill. As our income increases, our lifestyle tends to creep upwards as well, if we’re not careful. And this cycle continues indefinitely. Let’s say Peter makes it big and is raking in millions of dollars a year. Well, his social circle will likely have expanded to include new friends with expensive tastes (fancy restaurants it is!). That big house outside the city would sure be nice, he’ll need a car for that commute (might as well make it a Porsche to look cool), and he must send his kids to private school (that’s what “everyone else” is doing).

Before he knows it, what were previously wants, things many people only dream of, have become needs for Peter.

The excitement of buying the thing only lasts temporarily, and before we know it, we’re bored with it and need the next thing.

Which leads us into our third category of why we want things – because other people want them.

3) Because other people want those things

In The White Lotus, Cameron desires Harper because Ethan affirms her value to him, a classic case of “mimetic desire"

Beyond wanting things for personal reasons, we also tend to want things because other people want them. In a concept called mimetic desire, imitation is a major force that shapes what humans want.

Think about some of the most effective advertisements. Super Bowl commercials don’t show us the products they want us to buy, they show us other people wanting the things they want us to buy.

For example, one of the most famous super bowl commercials of all time is Apple’s “1984” commercial. They don’t say anything about the product itself, but instead, show a woman throwing a sledgehammer through “Big Brother.” The woman is the the model — the person viewers observe — and she wants to battle communism (just like the viewers). Naturally, buying an Apple product is the best way to do that.

Mimetic desire is the reason brands even exist. We humans have trouble making decisions ourselves, so we look to others to rationalize the decisions we make.

Our choices of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, where we live, and what we do on a Saturday night have to do just as much with our mimetic brains as they do with our rational brains.

But these are just small things. Now think about larger actions or major life decisions – the people we are attracted to, the goals we pursue, where we go to school, and even our careers.

We chase status, money, titles, and power – but why? Because they are things other people want. And when we don’t know what we truly want for ourselves, we look to others, even if we do so subconsciously.

We see this everywhere.

Our ex posts a photo with someone else, making us feel a certain way.

Our classmates are all recruiting for investment banking and consulting jobs. We don’t know what we want to do, but this is what all the other smart kids are doing, so it must be the right choice.

People start dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars for pictures of cartoon apes. Why? Because they’re “rare,” and thousands of others are doing the same thing. We see this in any financial bubble. It’s the same reason Dutch people in the 1600s were buying tulips for 6x the average person’s annual salary — “everyone else is doing it.”

Wanting Things Isn’t Always Bad

Scarce vs Abundant, Wants vs. Needs — note that the reality is a spectrum, not binary

Wanting things is not always a bad thing. In fact, many wants provide considerable increases in our quality of life.

As a personal example, I didn’t need to move to Los Angeles after college, but my quality of life has noticeably improved since moving here – the gorgeous weather & nature, the close proximity to a lot of interesting people, the novelty and endless number of things to do.

Similarly, I like to run, and I do almost every morning. I don’t need to run, but it’s an outlet for me to clear my head, get some good dopamine flowing, and pursue a goal. It makes me feel alive and more myself.

Being selective about our wants, and being thoughtful about what are actually needs (things required to function) prevents us from chasing the wrong things. Where we run into trouble is when we confuse things we intrinsically want with mimetic desires, particularly mimetic desires that are scarce.

Scarce vs. Abundant Wants

Over time, technology and societal shifts tend to push things to the bottom right corner

Think of the show The White Lotus, which everyone was raving about a few months ago. It’s okay to want to watch this show, because the show is abundant, and there’s no limit on how many people can participate in this broader shared social experience. It’s even fun when large groups of people rally around cultural events like this.

I want to run a marathon in April, and because anyone can sign up, anyone can partake in this larger social activity. Granted, we’ll have to train for it, but we do it for the novel experience (and indirectly, the expected increase in quality of life).

But when we want things only because others want them, and those things are scarce, we may find ourselves acting in irrational ways to do things that aren’t really in our own best interest.

The endless grind of earning that prestigious investment banking job. Getting that job, then toiling away for years to get that bonus so we can buy that fancy house and eat at those expensive restaurants, only to look back in 20 years and ask ourselves, “Did I actually want any of those things?”

So when we zoom out, the real question we need to ask ourselves is, “What do we intrinsically want?” Having others we turn to for guidance is helpful, but we must learn to think for ourselves; otherwise, we run into the trap of wasting our limited time chasing things to fulfill someone else’s dreams.

If net fulfillment is what we’re shooting for (racking up as many “experience points” as we can), we need to get real with ourselves. This is why I’m such a fan of consistent journaling and self-exploration. Our circumstances change often, and so do we. The more in-touch we are with ourselves, the easier it becomes to answer these questions:

  • What do we really need?

  • What do we intrinsically want (that will actually improve the quality of our lives, not just superficially)?

  • What do we want, but only because others do? And are those things scarce or abundant?

When confronted with a decision (whether as minor as a small purchase or as major as a career move) we should ask ourselves these questions.

The clearer the answers we have, the easier it is to act & structure our lives accordingly. An unintended side effect of pursuing things that we personally want is that life becomes our own game.

No one can compete with you at being you.

“The arrival is inevitable: death… the approach is relative: life.”

- Matthew McConaughey, in his book Greenlights

“Getting relative with the inevitable” means accepting that we only have one life and that our time is limited. We shouldn’t waste it chasing things we don’t really want.

The choice is ours.


Fresh Finds

Podcast | 154 minutes

This interview covered so many topics, and Wade is just an incredibly interesting human being. A professor of anthropology, ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has lived in every corner of the Earth, from East Africa to Peru to Polynesia, and so many more places, I think anyone will find this fascinating.

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