A lot of people write that wanting is a bad thing. Arthur Brooks writes about how less wanting leads to more satisfaction in his Atlantic article “How to Want Less.” A quote reads, “The insatiable goals to acquire more, succeed conspicuously, and be as attractive as possible lead us to objectify one another, and even ourselves.” He adds, “The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.”
Of course, anything in excess is bad. It’s science. I recently discovered the difference between “liking” and “wanting” called the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. An article on the National Library of Medicine website defines wanting as “incentive salience.” And that is a form of motivation generated by robust neural systems in our body that include mesolimbic dopamine. In simple terms, that’s the part of our brain that plays a big role in desire and reward.
“By comparison, ‘liking,’ or the actual pleasurable impact of reward consumption, is mediated by smaller and fragile neural systems, and is not dependent on dopamine.” Essentially, rewards in our lives can be both “liked” and “wanted.” At the end of the day, it’s the “wanting” that’s bigger. It’s the “wanting” that gets us into trouble. Wanting drives addiction and liking is just temporary.
I looked up words in the thesaurus for “wanting” and came up with things like unfulfilled, bankrupt, deprived, and empty. But isn’t the same thing as “wanting” defined as desire? Desire is a healthier thesaurus experience, with words like ambition, appetite, aspiration, and devotion. I like to think of wanting like a craving; an itch. Something we must scratch the surface of, to get deeper inside of ourselves.
I like to think of wanting like a craving; an itch. Something we must scratch the surface of, to get deeper inside of ourselves.
And yes, all of these ideas refute the notion that wanting tells us anything about ourselves. But my argument is, without wanting, how can we further define who we are? Are we not supposed to “want” at all?
I understand the secret to happiness has nothing to do with money and stuff. Five cars and a million dollars don’t define life achievement. Success and accomplishments won’t fulfill my entire life, but the desire for them will help me understand the truth about my needs and where I need to shift. Consider our imaginations. What we fantasize about always cues us into our desires. Imagining my children, and when I was young, imagining my future husband. I imagined kissing boys at my locker in high school, dancing the night away at prom, and interviewing for my first job. Wanting is the color of my dreams and listless thoughts. Wanting led me somewhere, pointed me in a direction, and told me who I was.
According to the Atlantic article I referenced above, “The term homeostasis was introduced in 1926 by a physiologist named Walter B. Cannon, who showed in his book The Wisdom of the Body that we have built-in mechanisms to regulate our temperature, as well as our levels of oxygen, water, salt, sugar, protein, fat, and calcium. But the concept applies much more broadly than that: To survive, all living systems tend to maintain stable conditions as best they can.” If we get too much pleasure out of our wanting, our brain is going to try to tell us that pleasure will help us survive—even if it won’t.
Success and accomplishments won’t fulfill my entire life, but the desire for them will help me understand the truth about my needs and where I need to shift.
But if we think about wanting in a different light—no longer defining “wanting more” by the material things, and instead looking deeper inside the need—what does that mean? Who are we when we want things?
I have wanted things deeply throughout my life. I have wanted a new house, to write a book, to fall deeply in love, and to see the mountains. But, our wants change. When I was younger, I used to list out the things I wanted in my diary. And lucky for my tendency to keep everything that triggers nostalgia-emotion (birthday cards, photographs, old paintings, bookmarks, ribbons from horse shows, and every planner I’ve ever owned) I have a few of these lists still intact.
Here’s one of those lists from my sophomore year of high school. I called it my “Wish List.” But for relevancy purposes, this is also a “Want List.”
- Everything in Target.
- Smaller boobs.
- To be tan without tanning.
- To not let certain people walk all over me.
- Wear cute dresses and swimsuits like everyone else.
- To be a famous star.
- To try more things.
- To meet Tom Welling.
- Be a part of the beautiful cast of The O.C.
- To understand Math 2B.
- Have a boyfriend.
- Go to prom.
- To know everything.
Now, nearly twenty years later, here’s my list. I call it my “Goals.” But for relevancy purposes, this is also a “Want List.”
- Move slower.
- Tell the truth.
- Write more about: things that make you uncomfortable (motherhood, aging, being wrong).
- Finish horse girl office.
- Paint the main bathroom.
- Pitch one print magazine every month.
- Every day, do something for family and friends (even if small).
So how do these lists define the truth about myself? What was the want in the first place—and when it’s fulfilled, who did I become? When these desires change, how does that change who I am? Who I’m becoming?
I think wanting is inherently captivating. Wanting tells us the truth about who we are instead of the version we want to believe. As I read through my list from the past, my sixteen-year-old self, I see how much I’ve grown. The lesson here is this: We don’t need to meet our wants. We need to feel them.
Wanting tells us the truth about who we are instead of the version we want to believe. . . . We don’t need to meet our wants. We need to feel them.
Our desires let us dive into the frivolous slice of our being, the kind that centers us to our true core. At sixteen, for me, that was fitting in. I desperately wanted to be everything, clawing at the walls of my diaries and self-identity. In another diary entry, I wrote a list called “everything you need to know about me.” In it, I wrote that I was witty and sparkly, guided others physically and mentally, and was quiet unless excited or tensed. But my wish list, my wants, told me more about myself than I could define on my own. They told me I needed to spend more time with myself, and that I was insecure, learning, a little superficial, saccharine, and beautifully desperate.
Now, in my mid-thirties, I see that I’ve slowed down; become outward. I fit inside myself better and have more time for others. It’s become easier to decipher the difference between who I think I am vs. who I really am; the parts of me I find peaceful and true. They aren’t perfect, of course, and my want list tells me that I need to find time for repose, be more honest with myself, and focus less on the technical things, like validating my writing through print. Getting published doesn’t make me a writer, writing does. That’s the lovely thing—wanting is a desire that fulfills the stream of our lives. We are always moving, adding, and subtracting here and there.
I encourage you to write down a list of your wants from the past and present day. From there, write through what they meant/mean to you. Answer the question: How does wanting X define the truth about who I am? How much have I changed? These answers may surprise you.
I love this excerpt from Molly Prentiss’ new book Old Flame.
“We were all going to become something, but we didn’t quite know what or when, and until then we were content to sit in small or large groups on small or large blankets on the patchy grass drinking wine in the daytime and talking about art, books, changes in the neighborhood, free concerts we’d been to recently, the particular burdens of our various day jobs, the possibilities of our side hustles, where we’d move when the law changed and our rent control lifted, etc.”
Wanting is becoming of age, beauty, desire, and how we pressingly define ourselves.
We are going to become something. And that’s what wanting is. Wanting is becoming of age, beauty, desire, and how we pressingly define ourselves. The word “wanting” carries a great deal of baggage. But, it also carries meaning. In the dictionary, wanting is defined as a “lacking in a certain required or necessary quality.” But, what if wanting is there to tell us what’s lacking about ourselves? That is the part that’s beautiful.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.