Wanting Is a Trap
But There’s a Simple Way Out
Posted December 2, 2016
Imagine you’re at your favorite restaurant. It’s Friday, the end of a long week, and you look forward to eating your best-loved dish: pan-seared salmon. You place your order with the waiter. He breaks the bad news: “I’m so sorry, we sold out of salmon this evening.”
What would your initial reaction be?
You might tell yourself, “But I wanted pan-seared salmon!” You might even say this out loud. You might draw the conclusion that life is unfair (or at least tonight is). You might even consider leaving the restaurant and eating elsewhere.
This scenario describes the pitfalls associated with wants. In this post, I’ll describe what wants are, how they cause us suffering, and how we can suffer less.
The Dark Side of Wants
In the restaurant, you were told the kitchen is out of your favorite dish. From the point of a view of a want, this would be very bad news.
"But what’s wrong with wanting things?” you may ask.
The problem with wants is if they are not met, they will cause you to suffer. This is because wanting shifts happiness elsewhere. It’s as if happiness were in a box, ready for you to open right away. But instead, you kept the box closed and moved it to another room.
At one point in your life, you’ve probably found yourself saying, “If only I had (insert thought here), I’d be happy.” Unfortunately, saying this means you’re not finding happiness in the moment. Rather, you’re preoccupied thinking of what will make you happy right now. You’re deferring happiness and in the meantime, you’re feeling uneasy, unhappy, or even downright miserable. In other words, your wants are causing you to suffer.
So Are You Telling Me to Stop Wanting?
Wanting, desiring, and craving are universal tropes. From the world’s oldest religions to the latest top-40 hit, wanting is a theme that appears over and over again. The bottom line is stopping wanting is easier said than done. So rather than suggesting that you cease wanting as if it were a light switch you can effortlessly turn off, I have an interim step:
Replace your wants with preferences.
In the restaurant scenario, “I want pan-seared salmon” would turn into “I prefer pan-seared salmon.” With this subtle shift, you move toward what you want. At the same time, when it’s not available to you, you adjust.
From the perspective of a preference instead of a want, the news may be disappointing at first. But because you realize that wants create suffering, you remain open to what life is presenting you at the moment.
The server says, “Although we’re out of salmon, we have a wonderful ahi ahi dish.” So you order to alternative dish. Although your preference wasn’t fulfilled, you enjoy the ahi ahi because you didn’t attach your happiness to a particular set of circumstances. Rather, you decided to enjoy your meal regardless of whether your preference was met.
Shifting from wants to preferences isn’t an act of complacency. It doesn’t require you to be a pushover. In fact, you can still work toward accomplishing a particular goal or seeking a particular outcome. But when life throws new information your way, preferences give you the ability change course without making you miserable. And, as you’ve probably experienced yourself, encountering unexpected circumstances—both good and bad—is a normal part of life. As the saying goes, “We plan. God laughs.”
Wants place happiness on hold. Preferences bring happiness to the front of the line. You can be attached to something you want, or you can stop the cycle of suffering. But you can’t do both. The choice is yours. Freedom comes from realizing happiness is always present, all the time.