The Problem with Wanting

Why desire doesn't always lead to happiness.

Posted Jul 28, 2015

About 10 years ago, I taught a short course on Positive Psychology to adult students. One of my students was a lady from Ethiopia who had been living in the UK for three years after marrying an Englishman. In one session, we looked at levels of reported happiness in different countries and pondered over why there wasn’t a straightforward relationship between wealth and well-being—the wealthiest countries weren’t necessarily the happiest, and vice-versa. 

“I can understand it,” she said. “When I first came to England, I was shocked at how dissatisfied people are. They seem to want all the time. They don’t seem to be satisfied with what they have. In my country, people have very little, but they don’t want. So they’re not dissatisfied. They’re content with what they have.”

There’s no doubt that wanting does make us unhappy. I can see this very clearly with my young kids. They’re happy when they’re playing with their toys, but they surprisingly become unhappy when their grandmother gives them some money. Suddenly they have strong desires for new toys or sweets, which makes them feel agitated and dissatisfied. They are happy when they’re playing in the garden, and they're unhappy in supermarkets, surrounded by displays of shiny toys and alluring junk food which triggers their desires. 

As adults, we’re not really that different. We’re unhappiest when we become dissatisfied with what we have and decide that we want more. We're unhappy when we feel the pressure to buy more consumer goods, when we feel that we should be earning more money and have a bigger house or a better car, or when we decide that our jobs—or even our partners—aren’t good enough for us, and we should be "doing better for ourselves."

The French author Alexis de Tocqueville observed this as early as 1831 while traveling through the "new world" of America: "I have seen the freest and best educated of men in the happiest circumstances the world can afford; yet it seemed that a cloud hung on their brow and they appeared serious and almost sad [...] because they never stopped thinking of the good things they have not yet got."

By the same token, we’re happiest when we don’t want—not because we already have the best of everything, but simply because acquisition or possession is not important to us. We're content when we accept what we have or don’t have, and appreciate our present situation. 

Wanting and Unhappiness

Why does wanting make us so unhappy? There are a number of reasons. First of all, and most obviously, wanting creates dissatisfaction with our present state. It becomes impossible for us to appreciate or cherish our present state because we feel a sense of lack, and anticipate a better situation. Secondly, wanting makes us less present-centered. It takes us out of the present and re-orientates us in the future. Being present—or being mindful—naturally lends itself to well-being, whereas being overly future-oriented lends itself to discontent.

Wanting also creates frustration, because often we don’t manage to satisfy our desires, or at least not in the form which we envisaged. Our expectations are often unrealistic. And worst of all, wanting leads to more wanting. We often have a naive belief that we’ll one day reach a place of fulfillment, where all our desires are satisfied and we don’t need or want anything else. But this very rarely happens. What usually happens is that the satisfaction of one desire brings a short spell of satisfaction, but then leads to other desires. Wanting is a process that never ends, and that easily spirals out of control.

In Buddhism, the connection between wanting and dissatisfaction is expressed very clearly in the "Four Noble Truths." The first noble truth is that suffering exists in our lives. The second is that suffering is caused by craving. In accordance with this, one of the main goals of Buddhism is to eliminate craving. There are many elements of the state of enlightenment, but one of them is being free from desire, being wholly content and sufficient within oneself. 

Appreciating Instead of Wanting

It’s a shame that modern consumerist culture encourages wanting. Our economic systems rely on us to keep buying goods and using products. They rely on us to keep working hard to earn money to enable us to buy these goods. Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising, which tries to persuade us to keep on buying. As a result, we develop desires for consumer items we don’t really need. We crave more money and more success and status. We keep wanting, and so become more and more dissatisfied. This is one possible reason why the world’s wealthiest countries are often not the happiest. Wealth often means more consumerism, which in turn means more desire and more dissatisfaction. 

We don’t have to follow the dictates of our culture though. More and more people are turning away from consumerism to a life of simplicity and frugality. More and more people are becoming aware of the hollowness of dreams of success and wealth, and “down-shifting” or “down-sizing.” We can resist the seductive—and false—promise of adverts, and the allure of shiny consumer goods. Instead, we can turn our attention to what we already have, to the really precious things in our lives, such as the people we love, our health, the tasks and hobbies that give us fulfillment, and the beautiful natural world around us. Rather than desiring things we don’t have, we can appreciate what we do have. Then we will feel real contentment, living in the present moment, without desire.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His new book is The Calm Center.