I think all desires in modern society have to be looked at in terms of fulfillment or substitutes for actual needs.
Our most basic needs are for physical well being, safety, belonging and esteem. (Maslow)
When these needs are not met or are threatened, people find substitutes.
A person might eat emotionally in order to receive a substitute biological feeling of wellness even when the brain might sense threats to wellness, or to distance themselves and distract themselves from the threat or feeling of lacking.
First, the fact that modern society is “not well”:
- If people tune into popular media, they get a constant stream of “news” and propaganda about all kinds of imagined dangers. Whether it is Right wing commentary, “Zombie Apocalypse” TV shows, or Horror shows - our biology reacts to our imagined threat to our safety or well being.
- In modern capitalist consumer-based society, people are conditioned to equate consumption with status and status with well being, and as a result usually overconsume beyond their means. As a result, they have to borrow money or work more - with the constant threat that their status and well being can be destroyed at any time by an economic crisis real or imagined (such as immigrants taking their jobs). In addition, there are quite legitimate threats to status and well being, as this is the nature of capitalism. At any point you can be made redundant for any number of reasons.
With a constant stream of threats to our well being and status both real or imagined, and with the perceived solution to the problem being an actual contributing factor to the problem, the cycle almost guarantees an unhealthy dynamic of increasing unhealthy desires that people believe will give them well being, but in fact make their situation worse.
What is an unhealthy desire? Here I intend the word to mean a desire that is satisfied by a means that over the long term threatens a state of higher well being while only temporarily satisfying a state of lower well being. Using Maslow’s hierarchy, a temporary lower need is satisfied at the expense of a higher need.
As an example, eating a large meal gives a temporary feeling of well being, but if done too much threatens the overall health of the organism through obesity, diabetes, etc. Another example is the biological hormones released during sex, but that partner may threaten future well being. Other unhealthy desires might not be so obvious, and people of different backgrounds may find controversial. An example is a child who lives at home well into their adulthood continues to feel the comfort of parental love and protection, but this may be at the expense of self actualization. Or a member may join a religion or political movement for a feeling of belongingness, but this group may act to suppress their development.
The only answer I can see is for people to have an ability to see and evaluate the long term potential of whatever means they use to satisfy their needs. Unfortunately, this is rare for people to be able to accomplish. One way (I’m sure there are others) that some groups accomplish this is through some forms of meditation, where a person practices distancing themselves from themselves. The practitioner practices looking at themselves as not actually being their physical body nor their intellect. Philosophy is another practice that seeks to analyze these things from a more neutral point of view. Some modern followers of philosophy accomplish this by spending time in nature alone for long periods of time.
The most obvious way to start on the path towards realizing unhealthy vs healthy desires is to “unplug” from mass media - which has been designed solely to substitute their unhealthy means to feed your desires.
Beyond that, it gets more controversial. Is religion healthy or unhealthy? Depends on where you are, I suppose and the specific religion or cult and what they want you to do. Is it healthy to be be informed about politics? Again, it depends.
One sure way to accomplish a clear distinction between what are healthy or unhealthy desires is to be able to satisfy all our hierarchy of needs internally without any need for external reinforcement of any basic universal need. Again, organizations often are in direct opposition to this and it is the nature of organizations to establish your need for them to provide you one of your basic universal needs.
When a person does “unplug” for a time, and does practice methods to analyze what is healthy or unhealthy in the long term, it becomes easier to recognize unhealthy vs healthy desires. In such a person an unhealthy desire just seems obviously and patently unhealthy, and the reasons for pursuing it (social pressures or commercial marketing) seem more and more absurd over time.