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The Hidden Nature of Wanting Things

Handling negative emotions


Here’s a realization that stopped me in my tracks recently: sometimes, when I crave something, what I really desire is not the thing itself, but for the need for it to go away.

Maybe that sounds like two versions of the same thing, but when I reflect that there are often a lot of ways to making a need for something go away without getting the thing itself, then the game begins to change.

To take an easy example: if I want a glass of water, what I really probably want more than the sensation of the water going down my throat is the cessation of my thirst.

In that example, of course, drinking the water is probably the best thing I can do, but what if the thing I want to do is to eat something unhealthy or do something I’ll later regret or act in anger because of negative feelings? In these cases, it would be ideal to stop feeling the need for the thing by some means other than getting what I think I want.

The good news is that there are alternatives that will often make a need or craving go away: for example, meditation or a frank discussion with a supportive friend or family member can often settle an angry or frightened mood, focusing attention on something else can often distract us from an unhealthy or unhelpful activity, and there are at least a couple of dozen of ways to get around being hungry.

The problem I run into, myself, is that I often get caught up in wanting the thing and don’t realize that I just want the need for it to stop. When this happens, anything that may make the need diminish seems like self-denial. Although I may be actually accomplishing what will make me most happy (making the craving go away), my internal commentary insists I’m preventing myself from getting what I want, from getting the object of my craving. This makes me think of a healthy redirection as a fight with myself, and instead of gravitating toward the best choice, I struggle.

I don’t think it’s the case that we always just want the cessation of a need, though I guess somebody could make a case for that. For instance, when I want to listen to music, it doesn’t seem to me that I’d usually be just as happy if the desire for hearing music went away. To use this idea, I’ll have to distinguish between times it applies and times it doesn’t.

Whether the insight will actually prove valuable for me or not, I don’t know, but I’d like to think that it will help me from time to time when I’m having trouble deciding between an appealing option and a healthier but less flashy one, to understand what that decision is really about and act accordingly.

Photo by Bart.

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How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower

States of mind

Wanting something isn’t all there is to motivation: motivation requires knowledge of what you need to do, effort, and attention, for instance. Yet desiring something–organization, health, success, an achievement–is the most basic and essential ingredient of motivation.

I haven’t written much about the importance of desire in motivation because the connection seems so basic and obvious, but recently I’ve been realizing that desire isn’t as simple as it has seemed to me.

Desires change constantly
It seems we tend to think of our desires as being very consistent over time, but in truth they can expand to fill our whole attention or dwindle away to nothing in just a few moments. For example, a person might wake up in the morning with a firm resolution to start getting really fit, but by three in the afternoon, after a particularly wearing day, care about nothing so much as chocolate, or someone might be driven to rise to the top of her profession one week and perfectly content in her current position the next.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our desires change so much and so quickly: desire is influenced by both physiology (hunger signals, tiredness, the dopamine rush of a pleasurable experience, and so on) and thinking (for instance, admiring what someone else has achieved or daydreaming about the future). Our attention, physiological state, current thoughts, immediate environment, communication from others, and other factors can change from moment to moment.

The thing to take away from this realization that desires change is that sometimes when willpower falters, the root problem is that for that moment we just don’t care about the goal.

Affecting our own desires
Knowing that our desires change and that losing desire for a goal tends to cause willpower to go down the tubes leads us to the conclusion that sometimes we will want to influence our own desires. This sounds very strange: if we don’t want something, why would we expend effort to make ourselves want it? The key realization here is that what we desire at any given moment isn’t necessarily based on what will make us feel happy and fulfilled.

For instance, I might very much want to stay up all night and watch a Gilligan’s Island marathon, but being exhausted for the next day or several days combined with the negative thoughts and feelings from knowing I was sabotaging myself would not make me happy no matter how much I wanted to stay up.

In fact, it might be fair to say that getting what we tend to desire usually doesn’t lead to lasting happiness (see my article on lottery winners, “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness,” and my article on hedonic adaptation, “Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same.”) The exception is when we desire something that provides long-term benefits, like health or rewarding work situations. Therefore being happy, fulfilled, and empowered often means changing what we desire.

How to change what we want
Changing our own desires may sound like a strange and tricky process, but in fact we do it all the time by focusing our attention. We may choose to read about Dr. Martin Luther King and begin to feel ourselves wanting to make a positive difference in the world. We may choose to walk into an electronics store to see what the new gadgets are and become possessed for the overwhelming desire for a 3D television. We may start reading about rollerblading and find ourselves wanting to get more active.

Other articles on this site talk about changing our environment and making good connections with other people to encourage ourselves toward our goals, and these are good external ways to influence our desires. But what it often comes down to is what we choose to think about. That moment of decision during which I have the choice “Stop in at the electronics store, or pull over at the park and go for a walk?” will change not only my environment but what I have available to focus on. The moment in the restaurant when I choose to look carefully at the “heart healthy options” on the one hand or “deep fried specialties” on the other will influence what I begin to be interested in ordering.

And the wonderful thing about changing our attention is that while it takes a momentary effort, when we do it we’re not yet to the point of strongly desiring something, so it doesn’t take the kind of complete reorientation we face when we already want something but know that it isn’t a good choice.

So while focusing attention and influencing our own desires won’t on its own provide all of the motivation we’ll ever need, it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of altering our minds for our own benefit.

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The Six Basic Requirements of Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

building blocksIf you’re a regular reader of The Willpower Engine, you may be wondering by now what purpose it’s supposed to serve to keep reading new ways to break down self-motivation into one simple concept or another. In one article, I say that willpower is exactly like owning a dog. In another, I say that willpower is a matter of thinking more of the right things and less of the wrong things. And so on.

There is a point to these different perspectives, even though each is a simplification, because each one comes at motivation from a different perspective. The point is that it’s much easier to find and fix the problems with our self-motivation if we keep examining it from different angles. So for today’s article, here’s another way to look at self-motivation: do your self-motivation efforts have all six of these basic requirements?

In order to motivate ourselves, we need to decide what exactly to motivate ourselves toward. That is, we have to have a clear, attainable goal that tells us what we want to achieve.

Once we see where we want to get, it’s essential to understand what steps are needed to get there. Someone who’s trying to organize needs to learn organization techniques. Someone who’s trying to lose weight needs to learn how much they should be eating each day and how to exercise effectively. Someone who’s trying to renovate a house needs to know how to put up wallboard.

We are very, very unlikely to be successful in achieving goals we don’t care about, for fairly obvious reasons. It is possible to start caring about a goal (for instance, by carefully considering the benefits), but the self-motivation machine groans to a halt when it runs out of passion.

Pursuing a goal means devoting time to it, and if a person hasn’t been pursuing that goal already, the time needs to come from some other activity. In order to pursue a goal successfully, therefore, it’s essential to carve out time to do that and to know what to do less of in order to free up that time.

Even if we have a goal, know what needs to be done to achieve it, desire the goal, and set aside time for it, it will not do itself. At a certain point it’s necessary to make a decision to put out effort. Sometimes this is easy, especially if desire has been stoked up. At other times it requires a conscious resolution, saying to ourselves, “OK, now it’s time to put on my sneakers and run.” or “That pile of papers isn’t going to file itself! Let’s get started.”

Lastly, like a plant that withers and dies without water, goals weaken and get forgotten if they’re not regularly showered with attention. All this means is making a resolution to turn the mind to the goal on a regular basis. One very effective approach to regular attention is a feedback loop. An even more powerful (but more labor-intensive) approach is decision logging.

And that’s it. The reason there’s so much information on this site is that none of these six requirements is always simple. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the right goal, or to know the best way to pursue it once chosen, or to find the time or ignite the desire or to make the effort or to focus the attention. Yet anyone who does all six of these things will make meaningful progress toward their goals: there’s no inborn talent for motivation, no secret ingredient, and no insurmountable barrier. Which is a good thing: just doing these six things takes work enough!

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Dealing with a powerful temptation

Handling negative emotions


A note: Most of my posts are based directly on findings from psychological research or other tried and proven sources. This post, while it owes a lot to these kinds of sources, has much more of my own ideas and observations than usual. It’s also missing the funny parts, for which I apologize.

In most cases where we want to cultivate willpower, it’s possible to make progress a little at a time, and a certain amount of failure is a natural part of the learning process. But what about when losing the willpower battle even once would have dire consequences, like an alcoholic who is struggling to stay sober?

Major temptations that keep cropping up may point to unmet needs, and ultimately the answer to getting over such a temptation is a matter of finding a constructive way to address those needs.

Before we continue, I should explain what I mean by a “need.” A “need” is a basic requirement that leads to suffering if it is not met. We shouldn’t confuse this with a desire, which is some specific thing that we think (sometimes rightly) will give us pleasure or help us avoid pain. Having enough food to eat, keeping the children safe, and having fulfilling work are all needs of one kind or another. Having a piece of the world’s best cheesecake, getting a child into a prestigious school, avoiding a conversation with someone unpleasant, or becoming a movie star are all desires. Desires can generally be dealt with by looking at the underlying need, which means that the cheesecake or the school itself isn’t necessarily the only answer.

Long-term temptations often seem to arise when a major underlying need is not being met. Unmet needs are also the drivers behind interpersonal conflict (see for information on an approach to solving interpersonal conflict that is successful specifically because it focuses on underlying needs). In a way, we can look at long-term temptation as a serious conflict within a person. The ways to address such a conflict are similar to the ways we address conflicts between people: both sides in the conflict need to be able to express their needs and then get their needs met. Until this happens, the conflict cannot be resolved.

As an example, let’s say there is a man called Don who is constantly tempted to spend a huge chunk of his and his wife’s retirement fund on an expensive sports car. (Let’s say he and his wife have agreed that they each have full control over their respective retirement funds.) Don daydreams about the car, looks at models online, and has gone for test drives. Deep down he knows that he doesn’t want to screw up their retirement just to own a sports car, but he can’t stop thinking about it.


If Don wants to resolve this problem, he has to dig deep and fully and truthfully answer the question of why he so desperately wants the car in the first place. Maybe it symbolizes a level of financial accomplishment that is strongly associated with having proven himself–in other words, Don believes that having the sports car means that everyone will see him as successful. Or maybe Don associates having the car with being young, and is scared to death of becoming old.

But let’s say instead that the sports car represents to Don a kind of indulgence for himself that he has never experienced before. All day, every day, he’s putting his time, attention, effort, and money into taking care of customers, superiors at work, family members, friends who need help, and so on. He has felt for a long time that he doesn’t really have any opportunity to focus on himself and do things that he would like to do.

At this stage, it’s essential for Don to untangle his needs from his desires. The car is a desire, but his need is to feel as though he’s had a chance to explore who he is and do things that are important only to him.

So what does Don do? The details are complicated, but the most promising way to deal with the problem is at least simple in concept: Don needs to find a more constructive way to meet his needs. This might involve him taking early retirement or stepping down from some of the responsibilities he’s taken on, or taking a vacation by himself, or blocking out time for some new activity in his life that’s driven solely by his own inclinations and doesn’t directly benefit anyone else.

The other thing that may help Don (in addition to understanding his needs and finding a constructive way to meet them) is to put his desire in perspective. An expensive sports car would definitely represent doing something just for himself–but would it meet his underlying need to feel like part of his life is his own, or would it just give him a short-term burst of satisfaction that would soon fade as he realized his life was exactly the same as it had been, just with a cooler car? The things we are often most tempted to do, if they are harmful to us, are very often not successful in even meeting the need that gives rise to them. Addiction to a variety of drugs falls under this heading, as a desire for satisfaction or pleasure drives a person to use a drug, but the drug provides only temporary relief. Gaining material things, however appealing they may seem, very often supplies a limited amount of pleasure over a short period of time. Pleasure is not a need, though happiness can be. (See my recent post on the difference between the two for more information on that.)

Understanding the need underlying a powerful temptation is a nearly unavoidably important step, but as to addressing the need, there are some alternatives. One reasonable alternative, as undesireable as it might sound to most of us, is becoming resigned to suffering. It’s not as passive as it sounds: in the example above, Don could decide that though he has a deep-seated need to have some part of his life for himself, his obligations are too important for him to make enough room to really answer that need. In that case he could spend his effort in becoming reconciled to his situation through avenues like support from his family, therapy, and meditation. It’s even possible that over time his needs might change and his old need to have some part of his life for himself could go away: after all, the human mind is capable of many kinds of adaptation. If this change didn’t happen, though, Don could still find ways to adapt to the continuing pain of not addressing his need, and if he did a very good job of managing those needs, his feelings of temptation would be likely to wane. This approach is similar to approaches one can take to deal with chronic physical pain.

Yet another approach is to change some part of the situation so that the object of desire is no longer a destructive goal: it becomes either neutral or positive. This generally means some kind of sacrifice or at least great change. In Don’s case, the car is a pretty questionable goal: research seems to suggest that material goods aren’t very effective at making people happy. But we could imagine a situation where Don could get a job that paid better but involved a lot more local travel, and so not only allow him to get the car without wrecking the retirement fund, but also give him more of a chance to drive in it. More realistic situations where a life change might help address a deeply-felt need might include giving up a good income to work in a job that offers more personal satisfaction or ending a relationship that has been stable but ultimately doesn’t provide the support someone needs.

In all of these cases, the important thing is to recognize the temptation as a symptom of the problem and not the root problem itself. Translating that temptation into the need that is driving it opens up possibilities and provides much-needed perspective. In some cases this alone might be enough to suggest a solution, and in others, it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Green grass picture by Dawn Endico.
Ferrari picture by
Simon Lieschke.

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