Do you believe that desire and contentment can coexist? I brought this question up to a large group of family and friends at Thanksgiving yesterday. It opened up a fascinating philosophical debate which revealed a lot about each individual’s character traits, hierarchy of needs and stage of life. What do you desire most in life? Are you content?

Desire is defined as “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who believed that human desire is the motivation for all human action. Contentment is marked by the complacency and satisfaction that follows fulfilling a desire or letting it go. In contrast to Hobbes, Robert Bruce Raup (an American philosopher) asserted that the human need for complacency (i.e. inner tranquility) was the “hidden spring” of human behavior.  

In my opinion both philosophers are right, and are actually saying the same thing. Desire and contentment are inherently linked like the sides of a coin. Together they are the driving force of human behavior.

Survival is a perpetual cycle of being driven to fulfill a desire/need and being rewarded by the contentment that follows.  Reward-mechanisms permeate our biology to make sure that we never stay content for too long. We are hunter-gatherers hard-wired for conquest and pursuit. One of the problems in a modern society is that most of our base needs are met so we create conquests and manufacture desires. This is a particular problem for high-achievers, powerful leaders and monogamous couples. How many people in the public eye and your personal life have you seen flush away long-term contentment for the short-term rush of desire?  

The famous Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is? was actually based on an existential essay by Thomas Mann called Disillusionment. Many of the people I know who have achieved the American Dream suffer from what I call "Is this all there is syndrome". How can we solve this?  One important key is to realize that focusing too much on what David C. McClelland described as a "Need for Achievement" in terms of wealth, status or glory often leaves people feeling malcontent. 

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs offers many clues on how to balance desire and contentment holistically. The pyramid below can be used like a checklist to take inventory of your life and assess your current desires and levels of fulfillment. In what area do you lack contentment at this point of your life? By working on each building block consistently you can keep your desires balanced and avoid feeling dissatisfied once you've achieved contentment in one area of your life. 

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