“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than attempting to satisfy them.” – John Stuart Mill
I am incredibly blessed and yet I still often struggle with discontent and the desire for more. I have recently found some stories, quotes, and ideas on this topic that have helped me, so I decided to share them.
The Businessman and the Monk
There is a great story about a businessman who appeared to have it all. He had a successful career and plenty of money, yet it never seemed to be enough. He always wanted more – more money, more success, more achievement, and more respect. In spite of outward appearances he was not happy or fulfilled.
He decided he needed to get away from everything for a few days to clear his head and rethink his priorities, so he arranged to spend some time secluded in a monastery. When he arrived a humble monk showed him to a small room furnished only with a bed and a simple writing desk.
His re-education began almost immediately, when, as the monk prepared to leave the businessman alone, he turned to him and said, “If you need anything else, let us know, and we will teach you how to be happy without it.”
Desire and Happiness
This connection between desire and happiness is expressed beautifully by Naval Ravikand, who said:
“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want. I don’t think most of us realize that’s what it is. I think we go about desiring things all day long, and then wondering why we’re unhappy. I like to stay aware of that because then I can choose my desires very carefully.”
And yet, desire is not all bad. It can also motivate us to improve ourselves and our situations. The key is not to eliminate all desires – life would be boring without them – but to limit and control them. Ravikant continues:
“I try not to have more than one big desire in my life at any given time, and I also recognize that as the axis of my suffering. I realize that is where I have chosen to be unhappy.”
The Wonderful Smell of Gratitude
Have you ever walked into a kitchen where bread was baking? The smell is absolutely heavenly. But if you stay for a few minutes the smell will gradually fade until you no longer even notice it. If you consciously try to notice the smell again you might pick up a faint scent, but it will be nothing like when you first entered the room. The only way to recapture the full effect is to leave the room and come back again in a few minutes.
In the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman compares the great things going on in our lives to the smell of the baking bread. No matter how wonderful our life is we get so used to it after a while that our blessings become practically invisible to us.
And what is the happiness equivalent of leaving the room for a few minutes and then returning to smell the bread again? Wiseman cites research by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough showing that expressing gratitude is the ideal antidote for desire induced unhappiness.
In the research Emmons and McCullough had three groups of people spend a few minutes writing each week. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for, another was asked to list five things that annoyed them, and the third simply listed five things that happened to them. Later testing showed that the gratitude group ended up being happier, more optimistic about the future, and healthier. They even exercised more.
While writing five things you are grateful for isn’t difficult, if you are like me you are already wondering if you have to write your blessings down, or if you can just think about them and get the same results. While thinking about the things you are grateful for is better than nothing it seems to work about as well as trying to smell the bread again without leaving the room. It appears that to fully immerse yourself in the wonderful smell of gratitude you need the focus and effort that only writing can bring.
Recognizing Your Worth
Another mistake we make is in believing that fulfilling our desires will complete us or make us happy. The fallacy of this belief was taught very powerfully in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Bobsled Team qualifying for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.
John Candy played the part of Irv Blitzer, the coach of the Jamaicans and a two time Olympic Gold Medalist who left the sport in disgrace after being caught cheating. The night before the Olympic qualifying event the driver of the Jamaican sled, Derice Bannock, asks his coach why he cheated.
“It’s a fair question. It’s quite simple, really: I had to win. You see, Derice, I had made winning my whole life, and when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what. You understand that?”
Derice, who had a life-long goal of winning Olympic Gold and only got into bobsledding when he failed to make the Jamaican Olympic Track Team as a sprinter, responds:
“No, I don’t understand, coach. You won two gold medals. You had it all.”
Irv’s poignant reply is:
“Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”
Here is a YouTube video of the scene from the movie:
What a powerful lesson, and its true not only of gold medals but of wealth, material possessions, success, titles, and acclaim. Self-worth is far more important than net-worth and self-respect is far better than fame. The desire to improve yourself is a wonderful thing but no level of success can change who you are, and you are already enough.
- A desire is a contract with ourselves to be unhappy until we get what we want.
- If we can limit our desires we can limit our unhappiness.
- Some desires are good, as they can motivate us to work hard and improve.
- Gratitude is the best cure for desire-induced unhappiness.
- Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that achieving your desires will make you happy. “If you are not enough without it [money, title, position, praise, or prestige] you will never be enough with it.”
Wanting more money and more success aren’t necessarily wrong, but the knowledge that you are enough whether you achieve your desires or not is the only real path to happiness.