Why We Believe Our Cravings Will Bring Us Happiness

The promise of happiness is all around us. It’s found in windows at the mall, restaurant menus, TV advertising, everywhere. Advertisers and marketers are always shouting“wear this and you will be happy!” “drink this and you will be happy!”

And they’re not the only ones. Our brains, too, keep shouting at us “eat that and you will be happy!” “watch that and you will be happy!” All day, everyday.

But does it ever work? When your brain tells you that the cookie you’re staring down will bring you happiness, does it? When your brain tells you that the new pair of jeans you want will bring you happiness, do they?


Researchers accidentally stumbled onto the reward center of the brain back in 1953. [1] They stimulated an area of the midbrain in rats and witnessed the remarkable things the rat was willing to do to get yet another “hit” of stimulation to its reward center. It would go wherever the researchers wanted – even over electrocuted floors that burned it – to get its reward center stimulated. Naturally, the researchers assumed that the rats were doing this because stimulating the reward center was so pleasurable, that it was worth the pain to get it. 

After studying rats, the researchers turned to humans to see if we could be given this same bliss. Sure enough, we acted in the same way. Subjects hit the “stimulate” button over and over again until they were finally denied the ability to continue. However, when asked what the subjects felt from the shock, it wasn’t bliss at all, it was frustration. Each stimulus was not happiness itself, but the promise of happiness. What the researchers actually found was the part of the brain connected to desire.


This area of the brain is the same one that’s stimulated when the dessert tray rolls by, the dice are rolled in craps, and your favorite store has a sale. It’s telling you “get this and you will be happy!”

The reason your brain does this is because your brain is evolved for the Stone Age. [2] It sees a deer that needs to be hunted, and is giving you the extra motivation and focus that you need to chase that thing down. It’s saying “eat that deer and you will be happy” to help ensure that our species lives on. And, once you eat that deer, you won’t actually be happy. Because the next day your brain is going to need to give you that same desire to hunt the next deer!

So back in western society – where we are surrounded by desires – we continue to eat, gamble, and shop for things that we believe will bring us happiness. When, in reality, we will never be satisfied. We will always continue to seek that next “hit”. [3]


I wrote about a similar situation we deal with in how to resist a craving, but the best defense you have is self-awareness [4]. If you catch yourself thinking that something tempting will make you happy; slow down. Take a moment to think about what’s happening in your brain and how it is trying to trick you. Simply by taking this moment to think, you will activate your pre-frontal cortex - the part of your brain in charge of impulse control - which will help you make the right decision.

If that doesn’t work and you still feel like you must give in try a tactic known as positive procrastination [5] Your brain has evolved to believe that it needs to “act now” in order to get that reward – you need to think fast in order to catch a deer. But in this day and age, you can probably put the decision off until later. Try this, the next time you’re staring temptation in the face, put your decision off for even just 5-10 minutes. This will calm your reward center down and allow you to make a more rational decision. And even if you do eventually decide to give in, you’ll have an extra 5-10 minutes to savor the prospect. But in all likelihood, you may notice that you don’t need that reward as badly as you once thought.


Self-control is much easier when we remember that the brain doesn’t know that we live in western society. It is programmed to help us accomplish the most basic things for the survival of ourselves and our species. The reward center has played a big part in our species survival as we once needed that extra motivation to get out and hunt. But in today’s society, we have the ability to dream of higher aspirations than merely eat, sleep and sex. The next time your brain tempts you with a promise of happiness, recognize why it’s doing it, take 5-10 minutes and remember your higher goals. Because your higher goals are what will lead to your real happiness.


  1. POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT PRODUCED BY ELECTRICAL STIMULATION OF SEPTAL AREA AND OTHER REGIONS OF RAT BRAIN.Olds, James; Milner, Peter Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol 47(6), Dec 1954, 419-427.
  2. Dunbar, R.i.m. "TSB: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective." Annual Review of Anthropology 32.1 (2003): 163-81.
  3. Berridge, K.C. "The Debate over Dopamine's Role in Reward: The Case for Incentive Salience." Psychopharmacology (2007): 391-4314.
  4. Segerstrom, Suzanne C.; Hardy, Jaime K.; Evans, Daniel R.; Winters, Natalie F. "Pause and plan: Self-regulation and the heart."(pp. 181-198). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xiv, 424 pp.
  5. Mcclure, S. M., K. M. Ericson, D. I. Laibson, G. Loewenstein, and J. D. Cohen. "Time Discounting for Primary Rewards." Journal of Neuroscience 27.21 (2007): 5796-804