In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

What’s Wrong With Our Desires?

Is there any way to be more satisfied?

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." Oscar Wilde

"Her kisses left something to be desired -- the rest of her." Unknown

We are all familiar with the common situation of getting what we desire and then being dissatisfied with it. Was there something inherently wrong with our desires? Is there any way for us to be more satisfied?

According to Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, we often have the tendency "to miswant": to desire things that we won't like once we get them. Gilbert and Wilson explain this tendency as a consequence of our limited information about ourselves, about the specific experience, and about the how compatible the two are. Because we lack this information, the validity of our prediction about our future desired experiences is limited.

We might know that we desire a certain person now, since we feel it in our mind and body, but since we do not know ourselves and the other person well enough to anticipate the consummation of our desires, it could be a "miswant". In certain cases, we stop desiring someone once we begin to spend more time with him or her. The bad experience of the morning-after effect is one expression of such miswant.  

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The distorted cognitive prediction concerning the nature of the desired experience can also refer to the length and impact of the desired experience. Gilbert and Wilson further argue that people tend to overestimate the duration of emotional events-particularly, but not only, the negative ones. This can be explained by our focus on, and hence the greater impact of, close experiences.

When we think about a desired experience, our thoughts focus upon this experience while neglecting other experiences and circumstances. This is true for the present, and even more so for the future. Accordingly, people tend to overrate the positive impact of a desired experience and are often disappointed to find that the experience is less positive than expected. Thus, the expectations of a long-lasting desired sexual relationship can crash a few minutes after its culmination.

Generally speaking, the emotional impact of close experiences is greater than that of remote experiences. Their perceived future impact is also greater. More remote experiences, whether the remoteness refers to time or to space or to emotional involvement, are perceived to have less impact.

So far, I have referred to cognitive flaws in the agent who evaluates the nature and duration of the desire. There is also an important factor in the nature of the desired experience that makes it shorter and of lesser quality than expected-and this is accommodation (or adaptation).

Greatly desirable experiences lessen in intensity with the passage of time. Highly intense passion often decreases over time. This is the experience of accommodation. Thus, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. Since emotional desire is often based upon a perceived change, and as the duration of change is limited, the intensity of many desires is reduced once we become accustomed to experiencing them.

William Irvine indicates another difficulty in continuing to enjoy our fulfilled desire: This pertains to our inbuilt tendency to feel dissatisfied. Irvine argues that the process of evolution dictates that we feel dissatisfied with any stable circumstances, whatever it may be. The urge for more and better has a great evolutionary benefit.

I have indicated so far a few of the major factors preventing us from enjoying our desired experiences in the way we thought we would: "miswant" (wanting things that we would not like if we got them), an inaccurate estimation of the length and intensity of the desired event (because of the intensity of the desire and our focus upon it), accommodation (the lessening of desire once it is repeatedly fulfilled), and our inbuilt evolutionary tendency to feel dissatisfied (which encourages us to keep seeking to improve our situation).

Are we then doomed to be disappointed by our desires? The above circumstances are the outcome of a kind of mismatch between what we really want to experience in the long run and the nature of the desired experience. In order to lessen disappointment, then, it would seem that we need to seek greater compatibility between our nature and the nature of the desired experience.

In order to increase the longevity of an enjoyable desired experience, the experience should have an intrinsic value. The value of an intrinsically valuable activity is in the activity itself and not in its external result. Listening to music and intellectual thinking are examples of intrinsically valuable activities: we listen to music because we value doing so and not because of a specific external goal. An intrinsically valuable activity is an ongoing enjoyable and fulfilling activity. A profound intrinsically valuable activity is one (a) that the agent considers to be valuable for its own sake, and (b) that involves optimal functioning and developing the agents' essential capacities over a sustained period of time (see here).

Having a happy and satisfying life implies the presence of many intrinsically valuable activities in our life. While engaging in these enjoyable and fulfilling activities, we have no active interest in achieving some other goal. We should focus our attention on those experiences that are intrinsically valuable for us and not on ones that others have or that we imagine might improve our lives. Given that our character does not usually undergo rapid changes, intrinsically valuable activities are more likely to maintain their value for a long time.

Although our society rewards extrinsically valuable activities, which are brief and efficient, there are endless possibilities for pursuing intrinsically valuable activities in which the value lies in the activity itself. Thus, whether one loves to read, write, dance, or immerse oneself in a highly complex job, one can derive unending satisfaction and pleasure from such activities. Our writing or thinking should never end or considered to be complete. Extrinsically valuable activities are more likely to become boring over time as we do not value them for their own sake; we merely value the goal that we hope to achieve by performing them.

Constantly adopting the other's interest (as too many people, mainly women, do) is a sure way to be dissatisfied. Our partners should not feel "left out" when we are involved in intrinsically valuable activities, but rather should find their own intrinsically valuable activities, and we should try to ensure that at least some of these are common to both of us. It is often the case that women insist less on their right to be engaged in intrinsically valuable activities; they may behave this way in order to be more popular or attractive to their partners. This greater flexibility will not make them happier at the end of the day, as their long-term happiness depends on doing activities that are compatible with their basic personality and needs.

Intrinsically valuable activities are less susceptible, if at all, to the above factors that make us frustrated with our desires. The experiences of "miswant" or of misjudging the future value of an experience are unlikely to happen in intrinsically valuable activities since right at the start we are aware of its value, which does not change substantially over time. The intrinsically valuable activity is compatible with our basic personality, which remains more or less stable. In profound complex intrinsically valuable activities, the process of accommodation does not take place. We cannot say that we have become so accustomed to intellectual thinking that it has been rendered worthless for us now. In this type of activity, we have a built-in tendency to be satisfied and fulfilled.

To sum up, there is nothing wrong with human desires, as long as they are expressed in intrinsically value activities. Not all of our activities can or should be like this, but when a greater percentage of our activities are of intrinsic value, there are greater prospects of maintaining our intense happiness and romantic desires for a long time.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that you are essentially a bore, but if you would try harder to find activities that you want to do for their own sake, and if some of them are also things that we can enjoy doing together, then we might both be less frustrated by each other."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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