I Want It Now!

The marshmallow test revisited: The benefits of mastering impulse control and delaying gratification.

Taming the Want Monster

The if-I-don’t-get-it-I’ll-die type of desire that we think is tied to happiness

If you're like me, you've lost count of how many times you've smiled and shook your head in disbelief at how strongly you thought you had to have some material thing or some experience—that “if-I-don’t-get-it-I’ll-die” type of desire? Now you look back and it’s just one more item on that list of “wants” that no longer has any hold over you.

Here's an example from my own life. My early teen years were tough. I did well in school but good grades weren’t what I wanted. I wanted to be popular. I decided that the secret to popularity was to dress in the most stylish clothes of the day. I begged and begged my mother to let me buy whatever I wanted. Finally, in exasperation, she put my name on her credit card at the most fashionable department store in town.

I remember the solo shopping sprees I went on, mixing and matching skirts with shirts and sweaters. Then, at home, I’d spend hours laying out my new purchases in different combinations so that I wouldn’t have to wear the same outfit twice in two weeks.

I was definitely well-dressed but it didn’t get me what I wanted. The popular crowd still didn’t let me into its circle. And so, although I could buy whatever I wanted, I became even more miserable because I was sure that dressing right was the key to being popular and that being popular was the only thing in the world that would make me happy.

It's easy for me to look back at that young teen and think that her out-of-control desire to be popular was truly silly; but the fact is, I can still want something so badly that it feels like a need over which I have no control. I experience it as more than a preference (like, for example, to watch a particular TV show). It feels as if my very happiness depends on fulfilling the desire in question.

Here are some of painful desires that periodically come up for me:

  • Wanting to regain my good health (I suffer from chronic illness);
  • Longing to travel with my husband to all the places we used to go;
  • Desiring to go on outings for as long as I want to.

Is there something in your life that you want so badly, it feels as if your happiness depends on getting it?

A friend of mine calls this “the want monster.” When her kids were young, she used this phrase to help them become aware of the tendency in their minds to want everything that appeared pleasant to them—a material thing, an experience. If they were in a toy store and started madly grabbing for stuff, she’d remind them that this was just the want monster and that it need not be satisfied. If they thought they couldn’t be happy unless they went to Disneyland, she’d remind them…it’s just the want monster.

We tend to think that if we can just get the right thing or have the right experience, we’ll be happy from then on. But the type of happiness that comes from satisfying the want monster is short-lived because nothing is permanent. That toy will wear out. That Disneyland trip will end. Soon our happiness gives way to a new target of desire.

Even getting my health back wouldn't make my life trouble free. When I reflect deeply, I realize that the type of happiness that depends on getting what I want is not the happiness I’m looking for because I know it would only be temporary. I’m looking for happiness that comes from being content with my life as it is, whether the want monster is satisfied or not.

This happiness comes from recognizing that life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, successes and disappointments, easy times and hard times. This happiness comes from opening our hearts and minds to engage each day fully, even though we know it may be a day in which the want monster goes hungry.

I’m muddling along with this practice, but I’m working on taming the want monster by recognizing that it will arise and that, although it will try to convince me that it’s one of those have-to-have-it-or-die desires, it need not be satisfied. If I can learn to watch the want monster as simply an arising and passing event in my mind, I'll slowly be able to free myself from feeling under its control.

Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 4 of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and SorrowThe chapter contains several exercises for learning to work skillfully with the "want monster."

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also like my article "Constant Complaining: Does It Serve Us Well?"

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

I Want It Now!