By mid-December my 14-year-old Gabriel entered full Christmas mode. His list for Santa started big and grew bigger by the day. It included a surround-sound speaker system, various and sundry gizmos for his computer, and a new iPhone.
My wife and I looked at each other in horror. I said, “His appetite could easily gobble our savings if left unchecked.”
The truth of the matter, though, was that Gabriel is neither gluttonous nor narcissistic. He simply shares two traits all humans possess—one, he’s a big wanter. By nature, he wants a lot, and he wants lots of what he wants. That is a big part of being human.
So far, so good. But, alas, Gabriel also possesses another characteristic shared by humans as well: with his human mind, he finds it easy to conclude that, because he wants something, he needs it, absolutely must have it. “I want an iPhone,” easily transformed into “I need an iPhone” in his mind.
See if that's not true for you. Pick any day of your choosing and observe how many times you think in terms of need. “I've got to get there on time.” “I have to do well on that project.” “I must impress them.” “I need that.”
The sad fact is that this mental gymnastic—convincing yourself you need what you want—results in misery. Let's use the relatively inconsequential matter of Gabriel thinking he needs an iPhone. By making a mere want into a necessity, he made himself anxious and unsettled for fear he would not get what he wanted. But, that's only half the story. If his mom and had I failed to deliver his iPhone on Christmas, he would be devastated; in his mind, he would have been deprived of something he thought essential.
So where do you fall into the I need/I must have trap? Is it with regard to doing well and succeeding? Does it have to do with thinking you need to be loved, approved, appreciated? How about life giving you the comfort and amenities you desire? You want to know where, when, and about what you cross the line between wanting and needing because, whenever you do, you guarantee yourself the anxiety and/or depression that destroys your happiness.
Here’s a newsflash. Despite what you've been taught, you have no needs except for food, water, shelter, and air. Think about it. No one has died from failing to get what he or she wants—that includes success of any kind, affection from whoever, approval, and, yes, even an iPhone. Sure, there is disappointment, frustration, or sadness when we don't get what we want. But devastation only results when we think we need—must have, can't live without—what we want.
Here are the takeaways for you to find more happiness in your life.
• Be a big wanter. Figure out what you genuinely want and work your heart out to make it a reality. After all, seeking and savoring fun, pleasure, and happiness is what gives life gusto.
• No matter what you want, nor how much you want it, never convince yourself that you need it. By doing that, you'll experience gratification when you get what you want, but never destruction when you don’t.
• Gracefully except frustration when your wants are frustrated, but don't fall prey to the mistaken belief you need never to be frustrated.
Here are five strategies to help you learn to want without needing.
1. Inventory your life. Figure out what you have concluded are your must have’s, have to's, and needs. Pay special attention to: (1) situations about which you think you absolutely must do well and/or not fail; (2) people whose love and approval you’ve determined you need; (3) things and conditions you believe you must possess.
2. Take one of the above at a time and remind yourself that, while desired, they are not needed: (1) your life will not end without them; (2) there are other things in your life that provide pleasure besides them; (3) they are replaceable; (4) your worth does not equal them.
3. Make a habit of not using any of the need words or phrases—“need,” “got to,” “have to,” “must,” and “should.” Instead, use words such as “want,” “like to,” “desire,” “hope for,” “prefer,” and “it would be better if.”
4. Make a list of all the reasons why you need nothing, absolutely nothing, though you may desire a lot.
5. Practice wanting, while reminding yourself why you don’t need what you want.
It is your job – your responsibility – to create as much happiness for yourself as you possibly can. That requires these two things of you. One is to be aware of what brings you happiness, allowing yourself to want what that is with all your heart and striving mightily to bring it into reality. Two, while fully wanting what you want, never – ever – convince yourself it is life and death to have it. By living both these principles, you give yourself the best chance of providing yourself the pleasures you want without ever experiencing devastation should you fail.
Until the next blog, live with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.