Want stuff? Join the club.
How to break free of the wanting cycle and finally be satisfied
I would like to tell you something about yourself. I know, I know. We don’t know each other very well. It’s quite forward of me to think that I would know anything about you. But I am convinced that I do.
Here is what I think I know: A week or a month or a year ago there was something you really wanted. Maybe it was custom clogs, your own monstera deliciosa, or a copy of Becoming. Whatever it was, you really, really wanted it. I mean really. You noticed it everywhere. Maybe you drove yourself a little nuts. In the end, you went out and got it (hey, #treatyoself!). Or perhaps you waited a bit (hey, #ynab!). And when you finally had that something, you were so, so happy.
Until the next week or month or year, when there was something else.
Not really. The truth is, I know this about you because this is normal. This wanting cycle is a normal part of being a person.
The wanting cycle has been around for a long time — for longer even than there has been capitalism to channel it. After all, 2,500 years ago, Buddhists began preaching that all of human suffering could be attributed to this never-ending wanting (sometimes translated as craving). You’ll never be satisfied doesn’t just apply to Alexander Hamilton.
But unlike that ten dollar founding father without a father, this drive needn’t destroy us.
This is because although perpetually wanting things is a normal part of being a human, it is not the only part. We are not just one thing. All of us are comprised of many parts at once. And, luckily, these other parts can counteract the wanting cycle.
The problem isn’t so much whether there’s a part to counteract the wanting cycle, but which one is the best to rely on day in and day out.
One possibility is to employ the self-monitoring part to notice and control the wanting cycle. There you are wanting things again! Feel this air coming into your nostrils instead! This method has promise; Awareness can be a powerful tool. The problem comes when self-monitoring is a mode of operating. Attending too closely to ourselves can make us feel neurotic, obsessed, and anxious.
Another possibility is to employ the self-critical part to castigate ourselves for wanting things. Hey you! Knock it off! You don’t need more stuff! Guilt and shame can be powerful, but cultivating them is a recipe for depression.
There is another option, one that uses a more fundamental part of ourselves: Curiosity. Humans are hard-wired for curiosity. In fact, curiosity lights up the reward centers in the brain similar to the way sex and food do. Curiosity doesn’t lead to anxiety or depression; In fact, curiosity shows promise in ameliorating both.
So, the next time you’re caught in the wanting cycle, remember that it’s a normal part of being a person. Wanting is normal. You are normal. It is also normal to be curious, and it is often more useful. Use it. Ask yourself: What if this is already enough? What if I already have everything that I need?
You might just be surprised at the answers.
This essay has also appeared on Medium.