The Art of Misery: Why We Are Never Truly Satisfied


On December 29, 1954, in Detroit, Michigan, Simon Kuznets, a Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences, stood in front of a large crowd of intellectuals, and delivered a brave Presidential Address at the sixty-seventh Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association.

Kuznets had bottled up his thoughts for numerous years. But, he couldn’t hold back any longer. His radical ideas were bubbling and ready to burst out into the open air of the auditorium.

After the Great Depression, and under mandate from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kuznets spent donkey years pouring through a stupendous amount of economic data in the U.S. and other developed countries.

In doing so, Kuznets accomplished an astonishing feat—the compression of the entire economic activity of a country into a singular number.

That number is what today we call GDP, or Gross Domestic Product.

On this day however, Kuznets wasn’t talking GDP. He was talking inequality. Specifically, the relationship between income inequality and economic growth.

During his speech, Kuznets proposed a radical idea that would stun the audience and throw the world into a frenzy. He argued that the growing economy of a country passes through three phases of income inequality.

In the first phase, economic growth creates more income inequality. In the second phase, as a country begins to urbanize, the effect of economic growth on income inequality is nominal. And after a tipping point, in the the third and final phase, economic growth creates less income inequality.

These three phases when traced form the shape of an inverted U-shaped curve.

Kuznets speech was later formalized as the groundbreaking paper,“Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” widely regarded as one of the most influential papers in modern economics. [1]

But the Inverted-U curve has far-reaching consequences beyond the world of the economics.

The phenomenon also sheds light on the age-old question: Why are we never truly satisfied?

Never Too Much, Never Too Much

“In America I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures…. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.”

— French Diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville (1930)

In 1981, the late legendary R&B singer, Luther Vandross, released a song that took the world by storm.

It’s called “Never Too Much.” Here are the lyrics of the memorable chorus:

“Oh my love, a thousand kisses from you

Is never too much, I just don’t wanna stop

Oh my love, a million days in your arms

Is never too much, I just don’t wanna stop

Never too much, never too much

Never too much, never too much.” [2]

Aside from the slick, smooth vocals of Vandross and the catchy beat of the song, there’s an undertone beneath the lyrics, which accurately represents our beliefs about satisfaction.

And that belief is that there’s “never too much” of a good thing.

In other words, we believe that more is better—more money, love, happiness, success, relationships, choice and so on.

But is more always better?

In a fascinating paper, psychologists Grant and Schwartz, explore a substantial range of compelling studies which show that virtually all human pursuits follow the shape of the Inverted-U curve. [3]

According to the psychologists:

“There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits, creating the non-monotonicity of an inverted U.”

Here’s an illustration of the Inverted-U curve:

inverted u curve

On the left hand side of the curve, doing or having more of a thing is beneficial—or leads to more satisfaction.

But, as this increases, the benefits taper off towards the middle of the curve. This is what economists call “diminishing marginal returns.”

After a tipping point, on the right hand side of the curve, doing or having more of a thing surprisingly leaves us worse off.

Think about the classic example of money and happiness.

We’d like to think that earning more money would make us happier, but an increasing body of research would suggest otherwise.

Studies have discovered that money can buy happiness, but only up to an income level of approximately USD 95,000. [4]

In addition, the top 1% income earners experience less life satisfaction than those who earn much less. [5]

Plausible explanations for this are that wealth attracts many fickle relationships that replace close genuine friendships, and it may also lead to unhealthy habits of social comparisons and material pursuits.

In a similar fashion, this Inverted-U curve phenomenon resurfaces in every area of our lives.

More is better only up to a certain tipping point, after which we’re worse off than before—dissatisfied and miserable.

Vandross was wrong.

There’s never “never too much” of a good thing.

A pertinent question then is, where is this tipping point? When does more become too much?

The Golden Mean

In the Nicomachean Ethics, ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, suggests that there is a desirable middle ground between the extreme ends of any human pursuit:

“Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it.”

—Aristotle (trans. 1999, p. 22)

This middle ground, also known as the “golden mean,” is best illustrated by the optimal point, bang in the middle of the Inverted-U curve—where what we have or do, is just enough for the maximum benefit or satisfaction.

According to Aristotle, the key to a lifetime of satisfaction is to remain within the golden mean of everything we have or do.

For example, if you’ve had your basic needs met and live a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and still feel dissatisfied, you’re out of balance to the right of your golden mean.

To rediscover your life satisfaction and realign with your golden mean, you could rid off excesses and downsize your lifestyle, by for example, giving away clothes and items to someone else living in scarcity.

It’s important to note that the golden mean isn’t an exact science. It’s an art. And it varies from context to context, and from person to person.

Through self-experimentation and inner discourse, we can move towards the center of the Inverted U-curve and realign with our golden mean for maximum satisfaction.

The Takeaway

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure….When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

— King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)

We live in a world driven by a crazed pursuit of more.

More money. More love. More relationships. More technology. More happiness. More self help. More goals.

We have and do too much. But, the “never too much” culture has sold us a dream.

More isn’t always better, as we’ve never felt so stuck and entrapped in misery than before.

Our only escape now is to flip the script—to have and do less, and give ourselves away to a lifetime of service and generosity to those in need.

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1. Kuznets, Simon. 1955. “Economic Growth and Income Inequality.” American Economic Review 45(1): 1-28.

2. Luther Vandross Never Too Much Lyrics.

3. Grant, Adam & Schwartz, Barry. (2011). Too Much of a Good Thing The Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6. 61-76. 10.1177/1745691610393523.

4. Andrew T. Jebb, Louis Tay, Ed Diener, Shigehiro Oishi. Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world. Nature Human Behaviour, 2018; 2 (1): 33 DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0277-0

5. Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2007). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science,2, 346–360.

6. Aristotle. (trans. 1999). Nicomachean ethics (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Batoche Books.

7. Interestingly virtues like courage, loyalty, kindness, humility and patience also follow the shape of the inverted U curve. For example, Aristotle explains that too little courage leads to cowardice, but too much courage leads to recklessness. The only exception to this could be wisdom.