Desiring Desire?

Desire is related to happiness, but how? For instance, many agree that satisfying desires brings happiness, but how? Is it pleasure in the satisfaction of a desire, or is it because when we satisfy a desire, we have one less desire (which implies desire is unpleasant)? Unhappiness too is a function of desire, but how? Is unhappiness caused by all desires, frustrated desires, or just attachment to desires? For that matter, what is desire? Is desire any want, a very strong want, or specific wants beyond the basic necessities of life?

Desire is complex, and I will explore its complexity here, for understanding desire can help us overcome it. Perhaps a prerequisite to overcoming desire is appreciating our attitudes to it.  

Let’s say X is something potentially desirable (food, a person, etc…). You then give me a choice: I can have X or I erase my desire for it. Which do I choose? It depends on when you ask me. If you ask me when I don’t want X, then I’ll choose erasing my desire for it. On the other hand, if you ask me during a time when I want X, then I want X. This means X is pleasurable when I’m desiring it and my attitude towards desire depends on whether I’m in its grip.

I have life goals, and these goals are desires. This means I live for desires and feel I must satisfy them to have a successful and meaningful life. Desire is so entrenched that if I have a desire that I don’t satisfy, and it vanishes, I may still “satisfy” it later even though I no longer want it, just because I think I should have satisfied it! So with this in mind, the loss of desire can be seen as a loss of meaning. Yet, when I seek goals, I implicitly think I will be permanently satisfied after achieving them. However, this means I would have no desires and thus have a meaningless life, which means achieving my goals would turn my life meaningless, yet the goals themselves are somehow meaningful. Contradiction. On the other hand, I can accept that my goals will simply be replaced by other goals, but how important are they if they keep getting replaced and my life is one endless circle? Is that meaningful? March to meaninglessness or vicious circle.

Sometimes, I seek something and enjoy the seeking itself and don’t mind when I fail. In fact, given a choice, I may happily repeat the chase, knowing I will fail. Is this an argument for desire? Not necessarily; my attitude to the “desire” in this case is so non-attached, that one can argue it’s not really desire. I’m enjoying it on my terms, and it has no power to determine my happiness. Perhaps this is one way a desire-less life can be realized – one “desires” but is not enslaved by it?

So far, much doubt was cast on the view that happiness = fewer desires. Let’s balance that with some counter-examples. If I’m really hungry, I’d feel content after the meal. Is it a pleasant feeling of fullness or the relatively pleasant absence of desire for food? I’ve had quiet moments of contentment – time with a friend, at a park, with a good book, or just relaxing. Those are desire-less states and they feel good. In fact, I regard them as some of life’s most precious moments.

Some claim that no desires = boredom, yet the opposite is true. Boredom is a desire – the desire for stimulation. To want anything is to have a desire, so any negative state is by definition a state of want (wanting for the opposite) and hence is a desire. So by definition, a desire-less state cannot be unpleasant, and if one imagines it to be so, then one is not imagining a desire-less state.

Some say we cannot imagine a desire-less state because we are still gripped by desire and thus cannot imagine life without it — that this desire even shapes our perception. Perhaps this is so. Perhaps it’s better to imagine from a moment of pure contentment, tranquility or a meditative state.

Earlier I claimed a desire-less life is not meaningless. In fact, it’s more meaningful than the lives we lead now. First, overcoming desires means we achieved a uniquely human victory: over life itself. Secondly, the most meaningful life is one spent helping others. What prevents us is desire, for it consumes resources (e.g.: time, money, energy) that we could spend on others. By overcoming desires, we free up these resources and can make a difference. We can donate more, volunteer more, lend a helping hand, lend a compassionate ear, even be more pleasant. I personally cannot think of a more meaningful life.

So desire’s role in our life is complex, yet ubiquitous.  What’s more, our attitudes to desire are complex, powerful and ambiguous.  For those wishing to overcome desire, one of the most important concepts to come to grips with is that on some level, we may desire desire itself.

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4 thoughts on “Desiring Desire?

  1. “Some claim that no desires = boredom, yet the opposite is true. Boredom is a desire – the desire for stimulation. To want anything is to have a desire, so any negative state is by definition a state of want (wanting for the opposite) and hence is a desire. So by definition, a desire-less state cannot be unpleasant, and if one imagines it to be so, then one is not imagining a desire-less state.”
    This is one of the most inspired paragraphs I’ve read since I started browsing the blogosphere. I had often thought about boredom and how when you’re bored your problem is not that you don’t have things to do, but that no thing to do seems to be satisfying. That’s as far as I got. Your explanation is much deeper and clearer. It’s as deep and clear as it gets.
    Oh, and the last sentence is plain brilliant.
    I keep recommending your blog to people: it is not a self-help blog, yet I think people would truly be happier if they understood the insights in your “happiness” section.

    1. Thank you! I am really happy that you find these posts beneficial enough to recommend. Your comment on self-help is interesting. On the one hand, that term is so laden, it is almost a pejorative. On the other hand, the articles are for people to help themselves. I guess it may be self-help, but without the pat answers?

  2. Might there be different types/categories of desires? Is it desire itself that’s, umm, undesirable or is it dependent on the object/objective? Maybe I not getting your conception of desire. I see desire as a guide to who I am, what my passions are, what I can contribute. I desire to do what I’m passionate about to help others. I desire to understand. I desire to connect with people in meaningful ways. I desire to love and be loved. I desire to relish beauty that’s all around us. Aren’t these good desires?

    1. Desire is one of those problematic terms, like happiness. My focus wasn’t on whether or not the desire itself was good or bad, but what impact it had on our happiness. I’m especially interested in the probability of satisfying a desire, how we feel when we have it, how we feel when we satisfy it, how we feel when it’s thwarted, and to what extent it brings us into conflict (or impels us to assist) others. Additionally, there’s the question of whether one can have goals, without being controlled by them.

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