Can't always get what you want? Don't worry

The first time I went on a silent meditation retreat, a few years back, I was terrified that the experience might prove impossible to endure.

The last time I went, the other week, I faced a different problem: I was pretty sure it would be deeply enjoyable and refreshing.

You might be wondering why that counts as a problem. Here's why. It was on the evening of Day One, watching the sun sink below the horizon, savouring the stillness in the air, that a thought first occurred: "Damn it, only a few more days of this and it'll be time to leave."

According to a cheesy old saying, there are two ways to be unhappy. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it. The trouble with happiness is that the prospect of it ending makes you sad.

I was in a good location to be entertaining such thoughts, since this insight is most commonly attributed to Buddhism and meditation can help.


But the same point crops up in multiple traditions: there's more to "wanting" than meets the eye. You think the solution to wanting something is to obtain that thing, whereupon you'll feel satisfied. But it rarely works out that way.

Either the thing fails to live up to your expectations or, alternatively, it does and then you're desperate not to lose it. Worse, what you're really sometimes craving isn't the thing itself, but novelty - and by definition, you can't keep obtaining that from the same person or possession.

In a recent essay , Getting What We Want Isn't What We Really Want, blogger David Cain recalled the bittersweet experience of buying new CDs as a teenager: "Every glorious listen came with a faint streak of dread because I knew I was only sucking the magic out of it with each play."

Clearly, the problem here isn't really with the specific things you want, but don't yet have. Rather, it's something to do with the phenomenon of wanting itself.

Recent work by the neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Robert Sapolsky suggests that the brain's reward mechanisms are designed to give us squirts of dopamine not when we get what we want, but when we pursue it.

We're chemically rewarded for maintaining a state of unfulfilment. From an evolutionary angle, this isn't a shock: constant restlessness is a better recipe for propagating your genes than contentment. And consumerism exacerbates the situation: the biggest profits come not from fully satisfying your customers, but from making sure they never stop seeking.

According to some hardcore Buddhists, the answer is to transcend desires entirely. A more immediately practical option is simply to keep in mind that wants can be misleading.

It always seems as if it's the next delicious meal, career choice or relationship that will finally deliver, as Cain puts it, "the experience of ease and unfettered enjoyment" they falsely promise. In fact, there's far more ease to be had "by understanding our wants, rather than scrambling to relieve them". What you really want is to get proficient at questioning your wants.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline 'Can't always get what you want? Don't worry'. Print Edition | Subscribe