We can go anywhere or buy anything, but the only place we will find happiness is inside our own heads. -Jim Unger (paraphrased)
Why do we want? Why must we always want something? What we can do about our wants? Along with attempts to answer these questions, I will provide some suggestions for anyone wishing to increase their level of happiness.
Most of the ideas I present here stem from the Buddhist philosophy, whose primary belief is that life is suffering and the cause of suffering is desire. We hurt because we want something we don't have or we have something we don't want. If we eliminate all of our suffering, then we have achieved total happiness, like Heaven, Paradise or Nirvana.
First I will answer the question “Why do we want?”, because understanding why we want can help us in dealing with our wants.
As humans, we are faced with three layers of wanting. The first is the instinctual layer, on top of which is the conscious layer, followed by the sentient layer.
The primary layer, which is present in all forms of life, is the instinctual, genetic level. The will to survive and propagate is the most fundamental edict of any genetic code, for life would not continue without it. Direct instructions – instincts – are what ensures most forms of life and, ultimately, its genetic code persists.
Instincts are responsible for simple yet essential things, like gaining nourishment and encouraging reproduction. For humans, instincts mostly run on a subconscious level, barely recognizable except in extreme cases, like fight or flight situations. It is due to the second layer of wanting that we remain mostly unaware of our instincts.
We think at the second level of wanting - the conscious (or memetic) layer - making it hard to analyze our instincts. Yet a lot of our desires and, therefore, our actions stem directly from our instincts – things like eating, drinking, and fornicating are essential for our genes' survival, so we often seek to indulge in the pleasure and avoid the pain of denying our drives.
Thoughts like "I want to eat or drink", "I'm horny" or "I want to own that" can all be considered conscious thoughts which stem from our genetic will. As an extension of genetic will, conscious will is controlled by genes through a simple feedback mechanism – pleasure and pain.
When our thoughts and actions coincide with our genetic will, like catching and eating food, we are rewarded with pleasure. If we do something against our genetic will, like starving, such actions are negatively reinforced with pain. The end result is an individual whose actions increase the likelihood of its gene's survival and propagation.
All animals, I presume, have varying degrees of consciousness. Consciousness can be thought of as a computer program, running in the animals brain on top of the subconscious, gathering and processing information throughout it's life. This conscious program is essential for complex animals in complex environments, giving the organism a way to learn and react beyond what can be preprogrammed by genetics.
Besides growing and dividing, conscious thought gives animals new options to increase their genetic viability, like learning ways to out-compete rivals. Most animals, humans included, constantly seek to improve their own status, since a higher status will often increase the reproductive success of the individual.
Although few of us seek to dominate the entire world, we all still seek what Morris calls pseudo-tribe dominance, meaning we wish to be the best in our own social circles, like with friends, at work, in sports or with games. Even if we do not indulge it, we all have a desire to win.
The human animal, as far as we know, has the most developed consciousness out of all the animal kingdom, giving us the ability to learn from and understand our environment at a level never before achieved on earth. Along with the technology we create, our big brains bring the layer of sentience: not only are we self-aware, we are also conscious of our own mortality.
We learn very early on that everyone, including ourselves, will die. We live our lives on a busy street, full of speeding buses. We see, everyday, everywhere around us, people being taken out - splat! ... there goes another - and we know that that there is a bus out there with our own number on it, barreling down on us to take us into the unknown of death.
Our inevitable death creates the highest layer of wanting: what I call the lifetime will, or life-will. We want fulfillment and satisfaction and to feel like we are getting the most out of life. We want the sense of security that comes from feeling like we are making the right choices, both for today and tomorrow.
Wanting the answers to questions like "What is the meaning of life?", "Is there a purpose?", or "Am I living right?" can be considered life-will desires.
When it comes to ways of satiating our life-will, most of us have learned ideas that make sense. Sometimes we are taught these ideas by our religions, by our family and friends, by society, and by our own life experiences. Our desire to live good lives, although separate from genetic will, operates with the same pleasure/pain mechanism as our conscious will.
Some life-wills are centered around denying our wants. Often for spiritual reasons, some humans choose a life of poverty, chastity and deprivation to fulfill their life-wills. Other life-wills are centered around indulgence, such as promiscuous individuals, or devout economic materialists (more on this later). Some of us are humanitarians, giving to help others. Some of us are monogamists, with a life-will centered around raising a family unit. Most often, life-wills are not solely denial or indulgence, but a combination there of.
In our infinite ignorance, no one can ever know for sure what is the best way to live. We have no choice but to rely on faith... faith that we are making the right choices. But, no matter what, we all want to feel good by doing what is best for our genes, as well as what we feel is best for our lives.
When it comes to dealing with our insatiable wants, I see three ways to respond: we can try to deny our wants, we can try to satiate our wants, and we can try to decrease our wants.
Denying our wants is something we all do in our lives. Whether we go on a diet, abstain from infidelity, or live a life of chastity, denial, and the associated pain, is something we all have to experience. Sometimes we have a choice, sometimes we do not.
When we have a choice, we use will power to resist the temptation to indulge a want. Usually, we use will power when our life-will (what we want to be) conflicts with our genetic will (what we want right now). When we use will power to avoid over-eating, we are using our conscious thought to deny our desire to eat, since we want the long-term happiness of nearing our desired physical self rather then the short-term satisfaction of downing a of big bowl of warm fudge brownies with scoops of chocolate soy-based frozen treat, or whatever else we do to feel good.
When we do not have a choice, meaning our life-will and our genetic will both want the same thing, is when we suffer the most. There is no long-term happiness associated with starving, if one is starving due to a lack of food. When we want something, or feel like we need something but do not have it, we suffer from the unfulfilled desire.
Indulging our wants is something we all do in our lives. Whether we eat a meal, drink a beer or buy a trip into space, indulgence, and the associated pleasure, is something we all have to experience. Sometimes we have a choice, sometimes we do not.
When we do not have a choice, meaning indulgence is something we have to do, it usually stems from a genetic will. We cannot deny our need for air, water or food, or deny any of our bodily functions without pain and death. When we indulge our genetic wills, we gain the immediate pleasure of fulfilling a desire, and avoid the pain of denial.
If we choose to indulge in something, it will bring the immediate pleasure of genetic will satiation. If the indulgence corresponds with our life-will desires, then we get the added bonus of life-will fulfillment. If the indulgence opposes our life-will desires, we will regret our actions and experience the pain of unfulfilled life-will desires.
We are programmed to seek out pleasure, and many things in life bring us pleasure. Most of our desires stem from our ancestral genetic drives, which were essential to getting humanity to where it is today. However, for most humans on earth, our basic necessities can be met with little work. So while we are not barely surviving, our genes are written as if we were. With our basic drives met, most of us tend to spend our time indulging our conscious-will for status and our life-will desires.
Denying our wants results in pain. Indulging our wants results in pleasure, but does not stop our wants from persisting. Decreasing our wants can be an effective way to decrease the pain caused by unfulfilled wants.
Decreasing our wants is not an easy thing to do. There is no way to instantly achieve a state of happiness that lasts beyond the instant. It can take lifetimes of work to become at peace with one's wants. But when we decrease our wants, we decrease our suffering and increase our happiness.
I can only offer suggestions of some ways to help us decrease our wants, which include understanding our insatiability, being confident in who we are, meditation, marijuana, and lucid dreaming. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to find out what we feel works best. Still, I do believe it is a worthwhile endeavour to seek to decrease our suffering, because when we do, it can improve every single day of our lives.
Understanding the Insatiability of Our Desires
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is eternally forced to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it fall down the other side when he reaches the top. Like Sisyphus, we too are condemned to an existence of fleeting satisfaction. No matter how much we indulge our wants and satisfy our desires, the feeling only lasts for a moment and then fades away.
Just like any organism driven by a genetic code designed for self-perpetuation, humans are insatiable. We have no genetic code, no programming, for permanent satiation. We have no instincts or ingrained ways to feel like we finally have enough. Complete satisfaction only lasts for an instant and then it gets replaced by new desires and new wants.
By wanting all the things we want, we create a potential future self. This future self, which exists only in our minds, has the things we currently want, say, with more wealth. If we were to instantly become our future self, like by winning the lottery, we would not suffer as long as we no longer wanted. But by our very nature, we would always come to want more, creating a new future self who needs more of something, and thereby continue to suffer.
This scenario presents us with two options to be completely happy. First, we can decrease our suffering by constantly moving our present self towards our ideal future self, meaning we gain whatever it is we want. Or, we can decrease our suffering by bringing our future self nearer to our present self, meaning we convince ourselves that we already have what we want.
Indulging our wants takes work – we have to work towards whatever it is we wish to acquire. Decreasing our wants takes work – we have to work towards being happy with who we are now. A combination of both methods creates a two-fold effect towards increasing our level of happiness.
In other words, to help feel like we have enough we can actively and consciously try to feel like we have enough. To do this, we need to rely on our memetic layer – our ability to think – to overrule our genetic level, using our brainpower to help in overcoming the suffering caused by our insatiable desires.
Being confident in who we are
You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your own love and affection. - Buddha
Self-doubt is something we all feel. This is not to be ashamed of, since self-doubt is inherent and instinctual. Our genetic programming makes us our own toughest critics; we always ask ourselves “Am I good enough?” As imperfect beings, we will always have room for improvement, but that does not mean we cannot feel like we are already good enough.
Being confident in who we are means we can answer the self-doubting question with an absolute, affirmative, “Yes! I am good enough.” If we can be completely confident in who we are and with what we already have, then we no longer have to submit to the doubt that causes us to feel like we still need more. If we can be completely confident, then no matter what happens in the future, we can be assured that we will still be ok, knowing that our confidence is all we will need in the future as well.
We will always have doubts, so unless we tell ourselves or somebody else tells us, we will never feel like we have enough. When we rely on others to tell us we are good enough, we will always need others to give us praise to feel worth, that is, until the feelings come from within ourselves. When we tell ourselves that we are already good enough, we make ourselves happy – happy with who we are.
If the feelings of worth coming from within, we no longer need the feelings of worth earned through status, meaning we do not feel like we need to prove anything to anyone, including ourselves. Although it is an unending task, overcoming our inherent self-doubt means we always have to acknowledge that we have enough, and that we are already good enough.
Meditation is something we have all done in our lives. Meditation, quite simply, is just thinking – the less distractions and the more time we spend, the deeper we meditate. Meditation is great. Along with being a stress buster, a path to insight and introspection, meditation is also an effective way to feel confident in who we already are.
Marijuana is a mind-altering substance, illegal in many places in the world. It is a gateway drug, not in the sense of leading to other drugs, but in the sense that it opens a door to introspection. Marijuana, as many of its fans will attest, can give a sense of peace and serenity that lasts well beyond the immediate high.
I am not suggesting partaking in illegal activities; there are places in the world where we can smoke marijuana legally in a controlled environment. And while occasional recreational use can be beneficial, habitual use can become detrimental, so while I am not suggesting we all become potheads, I still encourage people to consider marijuana as one possible way to help us to decrease our suffering.
Lucid dreaming is the art of being aware of the fact that we are dreaming when we are dreaming, so that we become awake inside our dreams. Lucid dreaming is one way to experience anything we could ever want. Even though our dreams bring nothing tangible into our waking life, it does bring experiences. Lucid dreaming allows us to indulge ourselves and receive the same pleasures, just as pleasurable as when we are awake.
Economic materialism is the belief that the more stuff one has, the better. Things like fame, beauty, and wealth are all equated with power and status, and therefore, happiness. Like Proximo in Gladiator, we who are materialists wish to suckle from the Great Whore until we are fat and happy and we can suckle no more.
The quest for status, the will to power, is not new; it has always been a driving force behind humanity's progress. Beauty, fame, wealth - all forms of power - have always been desired. The higher one's status, the higher one's reproductive value. Power, and the pleasure response its acquisition brings, is a strong motivator for us.
We are driven by both genetic-will and life-will to keep up with and surpass others. Although worldly possessions may seem superficial to spiritualists, materialism is no less meaningful than being devout. As materialists, when we improve our economic positions, say, by buying a new car or getting a better job, we receive pleasure from the increased status – a warm sense of accomplishment, as well as the satisfying feelings of worth.
I believe that today economic materialism has become a more prominent life-will ambition in our world. Corporate media, and therefore society in general, has increased our desire for worldly possessions by appealing to our will for status. Modern technology and advertising makes it easier for us to create a future self who is living the dream life of consumption, and, everyday we are presented with ways of inching towards the unattainable ideal.
As nice as more stuff would be, if we can be conscious of our insatiable desires, we can also know it will never be enough. There is no plateau or finish line that gets triggered once we attain a certain amount of status. The only way we feel like we have enough is when we decide that we already do. Until we are confident in who we are, we will want to indulge in status to fill the void left by our self-doubt.
The next time we want something we don't need, the next time we felt the urge to splurge on something that is more for status satisfaction rather than necessity, we could, if we wanted to, try reaffirming our present self, meditating about it, smoking a joint, and if all that failed, indulging in a dream. The more of us able to decrease our wants in a small world with a growing population, the better off we all are.
We will never be able to live without wanting. First, to continue to stay alive we have to want to live. And second, to want to live without wants means we are faced with the paradox of wanting to not want.
As effective as decreasing our wants can be, and as much as I am aware of what is driving me to want, I still continue to want: I want to better myself, physically and mentally. I want to grow and learn; to find out new things about the universe and myself. I want to live and enjoy life. I also want a happier world with less misery. And for all that I will want, I will suffer; but I believe the things I want are worth the suffering, even if I never get them.
Despite my wants, I still believe that the less we want, the happier we are. The happier we are, the more positive our thinking becomes, and the easier it is for us to get the things we want. This means if we decrease our wants, it becomes easier to satiate the ones that remain. Ironically, not wanting can make it easier to get what we want.
Like the Buddhists, I agree that life is suffering, but I also feel that life is great. It is great to exist. I know that it can be hard to always stay positive considering the shit we live with, but suffering will always exist; for as long as we have room to grow, we have something to want. Besides, suffering has to exist for us to be able to be happy. Just as we cannot have a meaningful life without death, we cannot experience pleasure without being able to experience pain.
It is true, that by not wanting more, we could potentially end up with less stuff, but we will have suffered less and enjoyed more of life everyday until our own bus arrives.
Suffering: It is everywhere, in everyone. We all suffer. We will always suffer. We have no choice but to suffer.
Why do we suffer? We suffer because we want.
Why do we want? We are told to want our genes, by ourselves and by society.
How can we stop suffering? By dealing with our wants.
How can we deal with our wants? We can deny our wants, satisfy our wants, and decrease our wants.
Which way is best? Whichever way we feel works best for us.
Why are you writing this? To share my beliefs that those of us who are not barely surviving can be happy with who we already are and what we already have. I cannot, however, promise happiness... for someone to be happy they have to first promise themselves to be happy, and then keep their promise.
Next Chapter: Global Unity