Be Careful What You Wish For

Focusing on what we want can be adaptive, but to what end?

Posted Jul 23, 2018

I recently visited a primary school and noticed an array of student assignments lining the school’s main hallway. Attracted by the bright colors and creative handwriting, I decided to take a closer look. What I saw was a collection of students’ answers to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I smiled as I read some of the kids’ responses—predictable ones, like doctor and astronaut, along with some surprises, like aeronautical engineer and toothpaste inventor. As much as I enjoyed seeing the fun stuff these kids came up with, I couldn’t help but feel a bit troubled by the whole thing. Of course, getting kids to think about what they want to be sparks creativity and imagination. It plants seeds of inspiration, inviting them to think about the future and consider what’s possible. But as a therapist who’s spent a lot of time working with disillusioned, distressed, and disappointed adults, I can’t help but see the other side of this well-intentioned thought exercise: It sets the tone for a life spent wishing and wanting.

Now, before you deem me cynical and stop reading, hear me out. As I mentioned before, I appreciate the value in thinking about what we want for the future. If we don’t give it any thought whatsoever, we end up aimless, with no clear direction for our lives. But at a certain point, the act of wanting can become damaging. Research in the field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated that the more we want, the more dissatisfied and unhappy we tend to be. And we don’t really need a bunch of fancy studies to tell us this is the case. If you’ve ever invested time or energy into wanting a bigger house, a better job, or a more compassionate spouse, you’ve felt the sting of not having those things now. Thinking about what we want naturally invites thoughts about what’s lacking—and this, of course, is an obvious downer. Furthermore, since wishing and wanting tend to be future-focused, they pull us out of the present moment, robbing us of our ability to be satisfied with what is. If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you already know how vital present-moment awareness and satisfaction are to our overall wellbeing; so while wanting is natural and somewhat necessary for our lives, we have to be aware of this particular pitfall.

Another issue that occurs when we focus on what we want is that we fail to consider the many implications associated with getting it. The expression, "Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it" applies perfectly here. There’s a reason many lottery winners wind up depressed, broke, or suicidal. We might have a clear idea of what we want, but if we don’t consider how our lives will change when we get it, we could end up less happy than when we started. I once worked with a client who spent most of her professional life focused on retirement. She wanted to get there so badly, for so long, that it shaped her life and influenced many of her choices. When we started working together, it had been eight months since she retired, and she was completely miserable. She explained to me that in all the years of rushing toward retirement, she never considered what her life would be like once she got there. With tears flowing, she said this about her experience: “It never occurred to me that once I got to this point in my life, my parents would be dead, I’d be too tired to do the traveling I’d put off until now, and I wouldn’t have any hobbies to keep my busy mind quiet. This is nothing at all like I thought it would be.” We can learn a great deal from the examples of people like my client, who suffer as a result of getting what they once wanted. If we aren’t careful, getting what we want could be a recipe for disaster.

Above all else, the biggest reason to be mindful of what we wish for is that we’re prone to believe we’ll be happier once we acquire what we desire. Social science research has proven that thinking this way is a setup, because the more we get, the more we want. We believe that getting what we wish for will be the answer to all of our problems, granting us lifelong joy and satisfaction. But happiness happens to be an inside job; without knowing how to cultivate it internally for ourselves, no amount of money or external rewards will allow us to experience or maintain it. Considering this and the other points of caution I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to wonder whether wishing and wanting is worth the risk. But let me assure you, there’s some good news here for those willing to take heed.

Despite the potential dangers associated with wanting, there is a way to utilize it in order to enrich our lives without suffering from all the unintended, messy side effects. First, and most importantly, we have to be clear that getting what we want is not a guaranteed solution to our problems. We aren’t going to reach some utopian state of bliss once our desires manifest; life just simply doesn’t work that way. Optimal wanting starts with generating this important awareness. If happiness is what we’re after—and most of the time, it is—we’re wise to focus on how we can cultivate it right here and now, before we’ve bought the yacht, backpacked through Europe, or married our one true love. Life is always happening in the present moment, so it’s important for us to realize that while we wish, want, dream, and fantasize, our real lives are taking place. For me, there’s nothing more terrifying than the prospect of reaching the end of my life and realizing I missed out on all of it, because I was too busy thinking about what I wanted instead of appreciating what I had. Don’t let this happen to you. Set goals for your life and, by all means, get intentional about going after them. But know that everything you hope to feel when you get what you wish for is available to you right here, right now.