There's an interesting discussion taking place over at The Moderate Voice about happiness and someone claiming that Americans simply want too much. I added a long comment, which I am copying here.
I'd like to go back to the egalitarian comments in Patrick's original post, as I think this is fundamentally important to happiness. The vast majority of human beings are social animals. We differ in how we express that. For instance, I'm basically introverted and like to have a drink with three friends in a place I can hear their jokes. Others are extroverted and love 80 people they know all having a blasting time. But in the end, we participate in a society. (Sometimes this is expressed religiously in the notion that "heaven" is being in the presence of God, while "hell" is being away from God.)
We measure our success and our worth by how we fit in with our society. If everyone that you consider your community lives in a 5 x 5 straw hut, you often think that's a fine way to live. However, if everyone you know lives in a "McMansion" and you live in a straw hut, it's no longer a fine way to live.
Many people criticize such attitudes, thinking that we should not measure ourselves against others, but I disagree. Humans really are social animals. It's how we survive. By banding together and doing stuff and finding our place. Just think of a single situation. If I were to walk up and give you a bowl of oatmeal, it would be odd, but generally a nice thing to do. But what if I walk up to you when you are with 9 other friends. I give every single one of them a filet mignon with butter dripping, and then I give you a bowl of oatmeal. In the second case, I've given you the same thing but been extremely unfair to you unless I can give you a reason you accept.
I had a conversation once with someone who had visited much poorer places in the world than the U.S., such as West Africa, and their position was that therefore there was no true poverty in the U.S, since the U.S. poor are vastly richer than the poor of Sierra Leone. But I think this misses some of the point. In Sierra Leone, those people are participating in their society as full members with a respected place in it. But many Americans do not see a justifiable reason that they are "lesser" members of their own society.
Finally, and this gets back to many of the comments, I agree that the expectation for more and more Americans has changed to want more than they previously did. This might be tied in part to the decline of the local community that others have discussed. We often don't measure ourselves anymore against our neighbors, but against all the Americans that we see on TV every single day (often presented unrealistically). And so while everyone around you might be in a similar 1500 sq. ft. 2 bedroom home, you don't judge yourself against them, but against the people on TV or in the suburbs or elsewhere. You know that other Americans, who work no harder than you, have a lot more, and you want to have those things, too.
I don't think these things break down neatly along conservative and liberal lines. For instance, many social conservatives see themselves as defenders of the nuclear family and small towns. And yet, I have defended the mega churches to liberal friends quite often, because it is the decline of those exact things which has propelled the growth of the mega churches. People today move around from state to state and find themselves in new towns with no family members and no friends from childhood. There is a huge social vacuum. And so they go to mega churches which provide much of the support that neighbors and grandparents use to provide.