“Too often, the thing you want most is the one thing you can’t have,” Grey’s Anatomy heroine Meredith Grey pontificates. “Desire leaves us heartbroken, it wears us out. Desire can wreck your life.”
Truly, desire has been getting humans in trouble ever since Eve couldn’t keep her hands off the forbidden fruit and got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. But where do our desires even come from? And how come they persist, even when the thing (or person) we want, may not be in our best interests? Let’s unpack.
It is often over the most inconsequential desires, such as what to wear or what music to play, that we exercise the most control, while whom we lust after or fall in love with seems mostly if not entirely without our control. Yet, a single rogue desire can lay waste to the best-laid plans of half a lifetime.
The Second Noble Truth
In Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths are “four facts that are known to be true by those with insight into the nature of reality but that are not known to be true by ordinary beings” according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. These truths explain how to deal with humanity’s innate suffering. As PBS explains, “The First Truth identifies the presence of suffering. The Second Truth, on the other hand, seeks to determine the cause of suffering.” Craving, desire, and attachment are at the root of mental and physical suffering, according to this philosophy. So, whether you’re craving pleasure, material goods, or immortality, if your want cannot be satisfied, you suffer.
Paradox of Desire
So do we need to drop our desires? Psychology Today points out that, “It is desire that moves us and gives our life direction and meaning.” They argue that the only desires that register with our conscious minds are either really strong or the ones that conflict with our other desires. My husband says I’m never satisfied—that once he gets whatever chore I’m nagging him about done there will be another task to complete. Facts, folks.
Psychology Today explains the endless cycle of desire as such, “Desires constantly arise from within us, only to be replaced by yet more desires. Without this continuous stream of desiring, there would no longer be any reason to do anything: life would grind to a halt.” It goes on to explain that if we were happy with what we have, then there would be no progress, citing that, “contentedness does not favor survival and reproduction: as soon as a desire is met, we stop taking pleasure in its object and turn instead to formulating new desires.”
Evolution of Desire
All of our desires are based on surviving and propagating the species. We desire pleasure and want to avoid pain. As Psychology Today astutely observes, our desires “did not evolve to make us happy or fulfilled, to elevate us, or to give life meaning beyond them.” It goes on to say that even fear and anxiety “can be understood in terms of desires about the future,” while anger and sadness “can be understood in terms of desires about the past.”
Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want
One of the most frustrating things about desire is not being able to control it. It can even conflict with itself. My brain just about blew a fuse when I quit smoking—the cognitive dissonance was too much. I desperately wanted a cigarette and wanted to quit smoking simultaneously. The same goes for wanting to lose a few pounds, but also craving a donut.
Sometimes our desires are influenced by society. Why else would anyone covet red-bottom shoes or boxy Birkin bags? Sometimes desire is an enigma and we don’t know what the hell we want. Dinner decisions, anyone? However, even when we do know what we want—say fast food—it’s not always in our best interests.
Terminal vs. Instrumental Desire
Some of our desires are the end itself, but many are the means to that end. Terminal desire is the longing or hoping for a person, object, or outcome, while instrumental desires are what gets you there.
I Want You to Want Me
In French, wanting someone you can’t have is called “la douleur exquise,” which translates to “exquisite pain”. (The French also have the best term for an orgasm: “la petite mort,” which translates to “little death.”) Marriage and Family Therapist, Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford says that being attracted to someone who doesn’t want to be with you could stem from feeling inadequate, needing validation, or low self-esteem. Here, she lays out why we’re attracted to people who are emotionally distant, in another relationship, or who live thousands of miles away:
- We are excited about the thrill of the chase
- We believe if by being accepted by the individual we desire it will add value to us or validate us
- It will satisfy our ego
- We struggle with low self-esteem
- We are attracted to the unknown or unpredictability of the other person
- We want to fulfill a fantasy
- We want to prove to ourselves and others we “deserve” to have them
- We unconsciously placed superhuman characteristics on our object of desire
- The less the person reciprocates, the more time we tend to invest trying to get the person to reciprocate
Supply and Demand
Just like toilet paper during a pandemic, people seem more valuable when they are busy. As dating website founder Erika Ettin theorizes, “The less someone responds or reciprocates to one’s advances, the more perceived value the pursuer thinks this person has. So we try harder since this person must really be ‘worth it’ if he or she is in such high demand—in other words, this person is a scarce resource.”
How do we value ourselves instead of someone who is too busy to give us the time of day? Dr. Bates-Duford says “you cannot obtain value vicariously through someone else. The only way to add value to yourself is by investing time and energy in yourself. We must value ourselves and treat ourselves kindly in order for others to see the value in us.”
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Buddha says we aren’t supposed to desire but then we run into the paradox of desiring not to desire, which in itself is, of course, a desire. So what’s the solution when you can’t get what you want? Take a page from The Untethered Soul and become the observer. Our minds cannot process negatives. When I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what inadvertently pops into your head?
So instead of suppressing our desires, we need to surrender to them. No, I’m not giving you permission to cheat on your spouse. Surrender as in, notice what is happening. Notice the thoughts as they arise, and release them. Let the wave wash over you and recede back into the abyss. As my sister Sam always says, feelings just want to be felt. Try channeling your energy into what you do have instead of dwelling on what you don’t.