Why Do We Want What We Don’t Have?

Understanding Our Desires

I think a lot about human evolution, and natural selection. I like to consider what aspects of our feelings and actions are based on what made our ancestors survive. Along that thought process, a line in a country song by Jake Owen called “What We Ain’t Got” sparked my thinking: “We ain’t happy where we are, there’s greener grass in the neighbor’s yard, a bigger house and a faster car, we ain’t happy where we are”.

It is easy to be cliche and say things like, “just appreciate what you have”, or “count your blessings”. While these would be great things to do, I find that deeper understandings of our own feelings help us to cope with them, and change them if necessary. If “we all want what we ain’t got” and recognize that, how do we take the next step to being content with what we have or can achieve?

Well in my humble opinion, I think if we can pinpoint the biological or chemical reasons why we feel that way, we can logically overcome those negative feelings. What is it that makes us always want more, and always want what our neighbors got?

Probably survival. For most of human history, it was hard to survive to reproductive age. This is natural selection, and the ones who did survive to reproduce passed on their genes, and taught their children how to survive. In this sense, having certain traits was beneficial to survival. The desire to always have more must certainly have led to better chances for an individual’s survival.

Now in the days of cave men, this probably meant eating more. The more you eat, the more likely you are to survive the winter, or a prolonged period without proper sustenance. The same applied to hoarding food and supplies. I may have enough food for a week, but wanting enough food for a month meant a better chance of surviving. I may have a nice sharpened stick, but my tribesman over there has a thicker stick with a sharpened rock at the front. I want that. It will help me survive.

In modern times, what is it that we need? Our genes might be telling us we need a better car, more technology, and a bigger house. But are we still stuck in caveman times when the desire to always get more helped us survive? It could be that in this modern world, in order to advance, a different set of wants and needs should be adopted.

This change however is not likely to happen quickly, since the two traits may lead to an equal chance of survival. Growing to reproductive age where you can pass on your traits may be just as attainable for the millionaire with a mansion and a ferrari as it is for the outdoorsman who likes to hike and hunt.

But this also led me to thinking about being happy. If it is ingrained in us that we always need to be advancing in one way or another in order to be happy, then we will never get to that place we dream of. Sometimes I feel like I am waiting to start my life until I reach some point, some amount of money, some type of job, some relationship status. But once I get to that point, would I really just be like, “ok I’m done, I’ve accomplished everything I wanted”? I don’t think so. I think the next step would be to accomplish something else. Set your sights on something greater.

But let me contrast the two types of wanting what we ain’t got. Don’t convince yourself that you will be happy once you get the new iphone, or once you have equal clothes to your friends, or once you buy that nicer house. Working towards and earning these things could very well make you happy, but I doubt that having these things will increase your happiness, unless they are a means rather than an end. If you want a smartphone because you love staying in touch with friends all the time, the smartphone is the means, not the end.

On the other hand, being all you can be will almost certainly make you enjoy life more. Understand why you want what you want, and decide if that is something that will put you in a better spot. Is your desire for more, more, more the result of thousands-years-dead ancestors making sure they survive the winter? Or is that born out of the desire to not remain stagnant?

We all have relatively similar chances of surviving “to pass on our genes”. That is why I don’t think material things make people happy; it is a stale process that gets us no closer to survival, and no further from death. If you want to accumulate things, accumulate accomplishments. This could include a big house, or a new car if you landed your dream job, or started a successful company, but those are not the necessary parts.

The important aspect of growing oneself is gaining skills, gaining knowledge, having goals, having direction. Mindlessly accumulating material items may even be a symptom of unhappiness, of not knowing what you want to accomplish, and having no set goals for yourself or your life.

How I Interpret My Goals

Don’t get me wrong, I want material things as well. But when I assess if I would feel happy when achieving these, I realize there is a sad abyss at the “end” of any journey. If you have ever seen Citizen Kane just think of his huge shadowy mansion, with statues, fountains, and things everywhere. But he dies alone and miserable. Or think about the Shel Silverstein book, The Missing Piece. When he finds his piece, he realizes it was the journey to find the piece that made him happy. The solution is to have no set ending for your journey through life. If your desire is power or money alone, this can get dicey. But if your desire is happiness, and money is a means to that end, rather than the end itself, that is not necessarily unhealthy if you are being honest with yourself.

Why do I want a giant house with lots of bedrooms, walking trails, gardens, and a pool? Because I am happiest when I am with other people, my friends, and my family. Because I enjoy outdoors activities, swimming, and growing vegetables. If I get to the point where I can easily invite friends and relatives from all corners of the country to stay with me, that would contribute to my happiness. If I get to the point where right outside my door is a variety of my favorite things, I will be in general more happy.

Is that the end goal? No, there would need to be more accomplishments, and more to attain after that. I would inevitably get bored, or stuck in a rut, so I would need to find a new productive hobby, start a worthwhile business, travel to remote destinations, and help others attain a better position in their own lives. But currently, it makes sense for me to strive for my vision of my dream home and property.

Can I still be happy if I don’t achieve that? Sure! That can always be in my head as something I want to attain, but I don’t necessarily have to get there to be routinely happy. I can start a garden before I am a millionaire. I can use trails that I don’t own. I can save up for vacations with friends and family, where we will all be together for extended periods of time. I can be happy while on the path to those achievements, because I am making progress, and achieving goals.

After camping with my family, it was disappointing to have to go back to the real world. In fact I started this blog coming off of a vacation mentality that I wanted to keep forever. My goal is to always feel as good as I feel while on vacation. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be happy until I get there, if I get there.

As with so much else in life, there is a balance. Be happy with where you are, but not to the point that you stagnate and lose that appreciation for your accomplishments. Strive for achievement and gain, but don’t let the goal blind you from the enjoyment of the journey.

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