Question for the Year Revisited

The question I’ve been revisiting this year is this: “How does one change want one wants?” Previous thoughts can be tracked back by starting with this from March.

I have this beautiful set of books modestly titled The Great Books. I like to feel smart and refer to them from time to time. To that end, I looked into what Freud had to say on our topic. Although he not surprising crafts his discussion around sex, I though this idea was interesting. When evaluating our instincts, we must consider (1) the Source: what is the stimuli, internal or external that the instinct is trying to address; (2) the Aim: which is always to eliminate the stimuli; (3) the Object: the means by which we are trying to achieve the aim; and (4) the Impetus: the action taken to effectuate the object.

Perhaps it is helpful to breakdown our desires. Perhaps I think I desire X as an end in and of itself, but it is really the object of my instinct.

Example 1: Stimulus: low blood sugar (or whatever way lack of nutrients in your body manifests itself), Aim: remove stimulus, Object: cure by eating, Impetus: go get a cheeseburger.

Example 2: Stimulus: feeling sad, Aim: remove stimulus, Object: cure by eating, Impetus: go get a cheeseburger.

I know it is not revolutionary, but I thought there was value in having an analytical framework to address this stuff. Then I came across this research that says we suck at predicting what makes us happy (or sad for that matter). The piece that clued me in on this was “The futile pursuit of happiness” published at page 116 in the 2004 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading edited by one of my favorites, Dave Eggers. However,the same researcher is featured in this Time article that I can link to. The point is that we typically overestimate how unhappy/happy a single event will make us. So, in my example, you can see a feedback loop problem. If you are eating potato chips to eliminate your sadness, the chip is less helpful than you think it will be, thus leading to more chips. (By the way, I assume there are non-eating applications to the discussion, but I thought the concrete example would help, and is obviously the challenge I am dealing with.)

But of course all this is just stating the problem of why we might have unhelpful desires. It doesn’t really address what to do about them.

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