This week I came across the exact same concept expressed by a Buddhist and a Christian thinker, which was startling enough to seem worth exploring.
Tara Brach: “The problem isn’t that we have desires, but that our desires are too small.” She says that we wish to connect with, say, our ex-boyfriend, when we should be wishing for the much deeper, more whole connection to Buddha-nature, the quiet, vast expanse that lies inside us.
C.S. Lewis: “If we consider the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I think this is super insightful and you don’t need to be religious to apply it to your life. I’ve been thinking of examples all week.
‘I want a flat stomach’ vs. ‘I want to feel like I belong in my body and it’s okay to be here’.
‘I want my kids to get me Christmas presents’ vs ‘I want to know my family loves me and thinks of me’.
‘I want to move in together’ vs ‘I want to know that you’re serious about this relationship’.
(I don’t live with my partner and prefer it that way, but not having that milestone of seriousness meant I had to explicitly seek reassurance of it. Separating out what I wanted symbolically and what I wanted literally, physically, for my life to be like, has been really tricky at times.)
For the next week, when you really want something, try and see if you can want something bigger. You don’t have to tell anyone – I think there’s nothing more terrifying than saying what you want. “I’m poor” = no big deal. “I want to be rich” = terrifying, can you imagine really saying that to someone, and meaning it earnestly with your open heart? “I want to be famous.” “I want more friends.” I’m cringeing just typing these things and they’re not even my own personal deep wishes.
But at least if you know yourself, you can go more directly to the source, and be more strategic in pursuing the secondary things you hope will lead to it.
(I have another example: We don’t need more employment, we need certain tasks to be done, and we need food, shelter, etc. etc. Employment is one way of getting those tasks done and distributing those resources, but it’s not the only way, and if we look at it as a problem of unemployment instead of a problem of tasks and resources, then we’re a step abstracted and unnecessarily limiting ourselves. So that’s what I’m trying to avoid in my personal life.)
A lot of studies have shown that people aren’t made happier by any particular income, but only by having the same or a little higher income than their peers. This is used as evidence that humans care more about status than they do about wealth itself (and that’s why communism will never work blablabla).
I’ve never heard anyone consider the possibility that being poorer than your friends makes it hard to socialise, which has an effect on happiness. If all your friends are poor, you hang around at each others’ houses drinking Aldi beers. If most of them start going to bars, and you can’t afford to, suddenly it’s harder to drink with them, or every time it involves feeling a bit guilty about having to rely on them shouting you.
Your friends start going to $30 restaurants instead of $11 restaurants, and you can’t get dinner with them much anymore. Or go to festivals with them, or concerts, or whatever.
Presumably if your friends are ultra rich and you’re only super rich, they’re all helicoptering to the Bahamas while you can only afford to helicopter to the Adirondacks.
This seems like such a blindingly obvious thing to miss that I wonder if it actually has been addressed and factored in, but also it’s exactly the type of human element that economists *do* tend to miss, so I wouldn’t be surprised.
tl;dr humans aren’t as shitty as economists think we are.
For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.