William B. Irvine: We’re Unhappy Because We’re Insatiable

Thomas Oppong
4 min readSep 22, 2022
Photo: Cleopatra’s Banquet by Gerard de Lairesse/Unsplash

What could drive us to such despair? Why can’t we get enough of anything? Knowledge, money, technology, media, alcohol, sex, video games etc.: nothing is beyond reach, yet everything is still beyond our reach.

The answer lies in the nature of humans. It is not hunger that drives us; rather, our dissatisfaction comes from an innate sense of longing for something more satisfying than what we have.

We have insatiable cravings because we are insatiable from birth. Our brains are hard-wired to seek out new sources of stimulation. This is called the “craving” instinct. We crave novelty, variety and stimulation — whether it’s a new food, house, car, clothing or a new relationship.

William B. Irvine explains in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy: “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”

Irvine theorises that our insatiable appetite leads to all of our dissatisfactions in life. In other words, by trying so hard to keep upping the ante on everything in our lives, we actually prevent ourselves from being content.

Our insatiable nature makes us the ideal consumers — we’re constantly looking for new things to fill our needs, and when we find something that works, we want more of it. And while some of these needs may be well-founded (food, water), many are not (luxurious life that only makes life complicated).

So while we may be happy at first, it doesn’t last long — the happier we are, the more likely it is that we’ll be dissatisfied down the line.

And once we realise how unsatisfying our newfound pursuit is, we begin to look for another one that will give us what we need.

This is why so many people are so unhappy today — they’re looking for something that doesn’t exist.

A happiness crisis

“Indeed there has never been any explanation of the ebb and flow in our veins — of happiness and unhappiness.” ― Virginia Woolf

Thomas Oppong

Author | Habits, Philosophy & Psychology. As seen on Forbes, Inc. and Business Insider. For my popular essays, go here: https://thomasoppong.com