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The Perils of Tying Happiness to Getting Your Way

Assuming that happiness depends on fulfilling desires leads to disappointment.

Key points

  • People are conditioned to believe that satisfying their desires will make them happy, but this idea often leads to disappointment.
  • People have little control over their day-to-day experiences, and as people change, fulfilling one desire soon gives way to another desire.
  • Dropping all desires for a moment and imagining that one is not at all dissatisfied with life as it is right now can create a sense of relief.
Source: Pixabay

Everyone is subject to psychological and cultural conditioning. We shouldn’t underestimate its depth and impact. Conditioning starts in early childhood. It comes from our parents and other influential people in our lives, such as teachers. It continues into adulthood with cultural messages playing a major role.

For example, we’re told over and over again that we “control our own destiny” and that “positive thinking brings positive results.” But this is a distortion of the human condition. We control much less of our lives than we think we do. For example, although we can control the steps involved in applying for our dream job, if we succeed in getting that job, we don’t control whether our workmates will be congenial or whether our supervisor will treat us fairly.

Setting Ourselves Up for Disappointment

In my life, 20 years ago, I controlled my own actions when I got on a plane to go from California to Paris for a vacation. But I didn’t control picking up a virus that still keeps me mostly housebound, similar to what some people are experiencing after contracting Covid-19. They’re called Covid long-haulers.

The belief that the key to happiness is fulfilling our desires sets us up for disappointment and dissatisfaction with our lives. One reason for this is that most of our desires go unfulfilled—we simply don’t get our way a lot of the time. This relates back to the fact that we control much less of our day-to-day experience than we think we do.

We need only make a list of how we think our upcoming day will unfold and then compare that list to what actually happened on that day to see that if we tied our happiness to the day going the way we wanted it to, we’d be unhappy all the time. I encourage you to try doing this one day as an experiment.

The "Unquenchable Thirst"

There’s another reason that we’re likely to be disappointed and dissatisfied with our lives if we tie our happiness to fulfilling our desires. Upon reflection, this reason is obvious: Our minds are as ever-changing as everything else in life. So, even when we do fulfill a desire, it’s unlikely to be long before it gives way to a new desire. Think back to that dream job I referred to above. It may not be long before we set our desire on a new dream job.

The Buddha had a name for this type of desire. He called it “the unquenchable thirst.” One of the chapters in my book, How to Wake Up, carries that title. This type of desire is intense, even obsessive. It’s not the type of desire associated with preferences, such as the desire to have vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Nor is it the desire associated with mundane activities, such as the desire to turn left at the next intersection. It’s also not the desire associated with altruistic intentions, such as the desire to help someone in distress.

“Unquenchable thirst desire” refers to those desires that we experience as a compelling sense of need—so compelling that we tie the satisfying of the desire to our very ability to be happy. We feel as if we simply must get our way.

For many years, this is how I felt about my chronic illness. The desire to have my health restored was so intense that I talked myself into believing that getting my way on this matter was necessary to my ability to ever be happy again. For you, this type of desire might show up as a sense of felt need to have a conflict-free work environment or a stress-free family life. But in truth, none of us can get everything we want. We simply don’t have that kind of control over our lives. I’ve never heard of a totally conflict-free work environment or stress-free family life.

I have an exercise I use when I realize that I’ve tied my happiness to fulfilling my desires. I imagine that I’m not dissatisfied in any way with how my life is going. Just for a moment, I drop all my desires and open my heart to my life as it is, including the unpleasant stuff, such as this illness. When I do this, even if it lasts only a few moments, I feel a sense of spacious relief. It’s a taste of freedom from being a slave to desire, and it feels good.

That taste of freedom lingers and inspires me to try the exercise again. This will be a lifelong practice for me because I’ve learned that desiring what I don’t control and tying my happiness to getting my way only makes me miserable.

Thank you for reading my work. You might also find this helpful: “Tapping Into Self-Compassion to Help Ease Everyday Suffering.”