Throughout the ages and across cultures, thoughtful people have argued that the best way to attain happiness is to master our desires, but throughout the ages and across cultures, ordinary people have ignored this advice

Throughout the ages and across cultures, thoughtful people have argued that the best way to attain happiness is to master our desires, but throughout the ages and across cultures, ordinary people have ignored this advice

“Most people spend their days pursuing worldly success — fame, fortune, and all the things that go with them. (And if not fame and fortune, at least social status and relative affluence.) They imagine that on gaining success, they will also gain satisfaction — they will at last feel satisfied with their accomplishments, relationships, possessions, and most importantly, with their lives. And with satisfaction, they think, will come lasting happiness. What they fail to realize … is that it is entirely possible to gain satisfaction without pursuing, much less gaining worldly success. Indeed, in pursuing worldly success, people generally impair their chances of gaining personal satisfaction.

People commonly think that the best way to attain happiness is to change their environment — their house, their clothes, their car, their job, their spouse, their lover, their circle of friends. But those who have thought carefully about desire … have unanimously drawn the conclusion that the best way — indeed, perhaps the only way — to attain lasting happiness is not to change the world around us or our place in it but to change ourselves. In particular, if we can convince ourselves to want what we already have, we can dramatically enhance our happiness without any change in our circumstances. It simply does not occur to the typical person that satisfaction can best be gained not by working to satisfy the desires we find within us but by selectively suppressing or eradicating our desires. … throughout the ages and across cultures, thoughtful people have argued that the best way to attain happiness is to master our desires, but throughout the ages and across cultures, ordinary people have ignored this advice.

Perfect mastery of our desires is probably impossible. … What we should therefore seek is relative mastery: we should learn to sort through our desires, working to fulfill some of them, while working to suppress others. … How will we know when we have ‘mastered’ desire? We will experience what, as we shall see, has been the goal of most of those who have thought carefully about desire — a feeling of tranquility. This should not be confused with the kind of tranquility brought on by ingestion of a tranquilizer. It is instead marked by a sense that we are lucky to be living whatever life we happen to be living — that despite our circumstances, no key ingredient of happiness is missing. With this sense comes a diminished level of anxiety: we no longer need to obsess over the things — a new car, a bigger house, a firmer abdomen — that we mistakenly believe will bring lasting happiness if only we can obtain them.

Most importantly, if we master desire, to the extent possible to do so, we will no longer despise the life we are forced to live and will no longer daydream about living the life someone else is living; instead, we will embrace our own life and live it to the fullest. “

On Desire: Why we want what we want P. 5

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