Today I want to talk about desire. Not lustful, sexual, or romantic desire – although sex and happiness is a subject I would like to study and discuss in the near future. What I am referring to is desire for certain outcomes, whether it be status, fame, achievement, wealth, recognition, possessions etc.
Desire is good. Desire is what motivates us. It is what calls us to action. It is what inspires us to improve. It is what moves us to learn. It gives us our reason for being and adds meaning to our existence.
Desire is also bad. Desire is wanting something that we do not have. Desire is a sense of longing or emptiness. Desire is a postponement of gratification and happiness for a future state. What we desire may never be ours, and in so desiring, we commit ourselves to a perpetual state of misery.
This post is a discussion of desire and its effect on happiness. I can neither categorize desire as either entirely good nor entirely bad. Instead, I will simply discuss both the positive and negative outcomes and states of desire, beginning with the negative.
When we desire something, we believe that the attainment or realization of that desire will make us happy. That is not to say that we are unhappy right now but indicates a belief that whenever our desire is fulfilled then we will become happier. In looking to the future and desiring something that we do not currently possess, I would remind readers of Dr. Dan Gilbert’s podcast, covered earlier in my blog (here), where his research showed that most people overestimate the happiness they would derive from a certain outcome. In the case of Dr. Gilbert’s research, he looked at winning the lottery, something that many people would admit to desiring. Lottery winners found that winning the lottery did not bring them as much happiness as they initially thought it would. Many of them rather reported being less happy several years after having won the lottery than they were before winning the lottery.
Based on evidence such as Dr. Gilbert’s research, I would speculate that the reason having our desires met does not bring the expected level of happiness is because true happiness is not in having any sort of tangible attainment that can be met or required. Happiness is a state of being intentionally cultivated with thoughts and actions over time rather than an accomplishment, a feat, or an object that can be realized, purchased, or otherwise earned.
Further thoughts on desire as a negative influence exist when we consider its effect in the present. To be in a state of desire indicates a state of discontentment. Whatever it is that you desire, it reflects a lack of full satisfaction and happiness. I am not sure that this is a state that can be fully conquered, as on some level there will always be something that we all desire such as shelter or food. I don’t suggest that you completely eradicate all desire from your psyche but merely recommend that you deeply consider what you desire, thinking about why you have that desire, and why you feel that realization of that desire will make you happy, lastly considering just how happy that will make you. Quoting Seneca, as I have before: “no person has the power to have everything they want, but it is within their power not to want what they don’t have.”
Let us shift focus now to the good side of desire. While it is all well and good to say that enlightenment is found in a state of complete inner peace and absence of any sort of wanting, I find that this level of zen-like wisdom is difficult to attain and perhaps not very practical to the average person who desires a state of greater happiness. Most of us who don’t envision an existence of solitude spent meditating on a lonely mountaintop will always wrestle with some aspects of desire.
The positive of desire is that our desire is our motivation. Desire is our motive force to be a better person, to work hard, to strive for progress, and to uplift ourselves and others. Desire is an acknowledgement of imperfection and a commitment improvement, not with the expectation or hope that perfection is ever attained but with the knowledge that any movement forward is a progress. I think of desire as a positive force when it is harnessed to push us to action in self-improvement or improving the world around us. Remember, self-improvement is not selfish, as Paulo Coelho would tell us, we are all part of the world, so when we uplift ourselves, we improve the soul of the entire world. We may also desire to make the world a better place. The desire to end starvation, as an example, is a noble goal that must begin with the admission that there is suffering. Some would say that desire is evidence of discontentment, but I do not believe that this recognition diminishes our state of happiness in the present, but rather indicates our recognition of a problem and an acknowledgement of our desire to lessen suffering for others. This is good desire. Even the desire to have a fancy car is not inherently bad, although I would caution one against excessive coveting of material possessions. Presumably if you work hard enough to earn such a car, you must be providing a service of sorts that at some level is providing value to others. To that end I would echo the words of the Buddha in saying that what you achieve isn’t as important as what you gave up to achieve it.
In summary I close by saying that desire is both good and bad, but that if we are going to be moved by desire, we must ensure that what we desire noble in aim, improving either ourselves or others in its attainment, otherwise it is merely selfish and indicates a lack of control over ourselves and a lack our ability to feel happiness and gratitude. Living a life of little desire or of only desiring to better ourselves, not because we must be perfect but because we believe we can do more, indicates one of the highest levels of freedom we can achieve. Closing with yet another Stoic quote, this one from Epictetus: “freedom isn’t secured by filling up your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.”