The Secret Shift to Stop Suffering

Is there a way out of our wants?

Posted Nov 16, 2016

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Have you ever wanted anything? To bring this question to the forefront of your imagination, finish the following sentence:

Right now, I want …

 Whether you’re five years old, fifty years old, or beyond, I’m sure you’ve felt the allure of wanting something. While the x-factor representing the object of your desire has changed from childhood to the present day, it often carries the same power to consume your attention. From kids that can’t sleep on Christmas Eve to grown ups fretting over a home’s loan approval, our wants are a universal trope.

Is there a way out of our wants? If so, is it even worth challenging what seems like a normal part of the human condition? In this post, we’ll explore these two questions.

Different Kinds of Wants

In my work as a licensed clinical psychologist, I’ve been an observer of human behavior. I’ve noticed trends and recurring themes among the men and women I meet with on a weekly basis. Here are few I’ve identified:

Always Looking Up

The apartment renter envies the person who bought a condominium. The condo owner wishes he could buy a small home. And the suburban homeowner pines after the magnificent beachfront property. We tend to compare ourselves to others who have more than us. We rarely look at people who have less. People with college degrees don't compare themselves to high school dropouts. Rather they set their eyes on the person with the masters or PhD.

 If you ever get a chance, talk to someone who has accomplished greatness. Perhaps they are a high-performing athlete, a top musician, a successful entrepreneur, or a well-respected academic. After learning about their journey and where they plan to go next, you’d probably hear that they’re looking for their next goal. No matter how great their success, they’re not satisfied with what they have.

Fear of Failure

Sometimes our wants are rooted in a persistent fear of what would happen if we failed. While the outcome may be similar to those “Always Looking Up” the driver is different. It’s less about an insatiable desire to succeed and more about a fear of not being successful. A high-performing athlete, top musician, successful entrepreneur, or well-respected academic who is fears failure is often burdened with a persistent fear that if they don’t continue to climb the achievement ladder, someone more ambitious and hardworking will quickly overtake them.

Stability Breeds More Stability

A person may not be burdened by “Always Looking Up” or a “Fear of Failure.” He or she may be content with her level of achievement. Unfortunately, stability can be just as hazardous to our well being as wanting more. After all, you may have a million dollars in the bank. But suddenly you wonder if that is enough money. What if the economy tanks? Once you have what you thought you wanted, you fear losing it. The burden of stability is a stressful affair!

You may have the romantic partner of your dreams. Your friends and family members may envy the person you call your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend. But now you’ve found your soul mate, you fear losing him or her. For example, he or she may be diagnosed with an incurable illness or pass away in an accident, or your life partner may one day fall out of love with you and seek love elsewhere. Once you have what you want, the possibility of losing it can be downright frightening.  

The Burden of “Always Looking Up,” “Fear of Failure,” and “Stability Breeds More Stability”

 I’m sure you can identify a point in your life when you experienced one or more of these. They all demonstrate the cycle of wanting. And this cycle leads to suffering. Whatever you particular want is, without exception, it always represents a fear or desire. Wanting is a pendulum that swings back-and-forth between fear on one side and desire on the other. So if wanting leads to suffering, do we have to stop wanting to be happy? And is “not wanting” even possible?

Wants Versus Preferences

The short answer to both questions is yes. Yes, in order to be happy we have to stop wanting. The good news is this is possible. Shutting off the want switch requires a shift in perception. It doesn’t require you to get rid of your possessions and abandon everyone you love. Rather than any extreme change, stopping wanting is subtle.

 Instead of saying, “Right now, I want (fill in the blank),” you say, “right now, I prefer (fill in the blank).” Making the transition from wants to preferences is the key to no longer be held captive by the endless cycle of fears and desires.  

The differences between wants and preferences is simple. Wants are black-and-white: If I don't obtain my want, I’ll suffer. If I do attain it, I’ll want more of it, or I’ll fear losing it. In either case, I’ll suffer.

Preferences allow for flexibility.  You can prefer a certain career, a type of person in your life, or an object. You can work hard toward increasing the likelihood of reaching your goal. But if your preference doesn’t become a reality, all is well. You’ll adjust to circumstances as they arise rather than cling to a particular outcome that, if not realized, will make you unhappy.

Shifting from wants to preferences will lead to less suffering and more happiness. When you are content with what you have, and when you have it, you no longer succumb to external circumstances that must be fulfilled. You take control of happiness and allow it to blossom inside you no matter what circumstances arise around you.

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