The Want Monster: Wanting What We Don’t Have

The “Want” Monster.

It’s that little voice in your head which tells you “I want this and that and everything in between!” or “I don’t want this because it’s horrible!”

It isn’t a kind voice but one of consistent temptation. It’s a quiet and smooth voice which can infiltrate your thoughts without a problem. And when we’re bombarded with advertising and deals designed to make you panic, the voice comes out in full force, puts on its lawyer suit and starts justifying everything it possibly can.

Unfortunately, the Want Monster is also dumb because wanting is all it can do. It doesn’t disappear once we have what we apparently desire. Rather, it presses the snooze button and waits for another opportunity to wake up again.

It’s an unquenchable thirst.

Tanha – the Buddhist idea of the self-focused desire to want more and more. We justify it by thinking that we will have a peace of mind after it appears.

But nah. That doesn’t happen.

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She’d probably go shopping for more. Looking good though, can’t lie.

I Want What You Have

I was eating lunch with my sister when I was about 7. We were having chicken wings with rice and stew. I finished mine, she hadn’t finished hers. And I sat down and ate the rest of my food in peace.

Ok, of course not. I stared at her plate of food until my gran gave me her wings and replaced my sister’s food with a boney piece of meat.

She held a grudge for years. Hell, I’d be mad too because those wings were magnificent.

This somewhat comical example of just wanting what other people have. Kids do it all the time. Adults do it too but with things more ambitious than chicken wings and toys.

Here is the science.

Lebreton et al in Your Goal Is Mine: Unraveling Mimetic Desires in the Human Brain, explores this in a lot of detail but I want to get to the important part for our purposes.

First, it’s really easy to start mimicking the desires of other people. The authors simply showed the participants pictures of sweets that looked slightly different and had an unseen person pick one. Uniformly, the participants preferred the sweet picked by the unseen person.

Second and most importantly, we don’t want something because someone else has it, we value something because someone else values it. This means that we believe the reward given by the item is greater because other people have it and we value highly valued things (sorry for the mouthful).

What does this mean for us?

The Want Monster will always have something to feast on and desire!

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I suppose in this picture, I would have taken the whole plate. Photo by Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash

How can we want less?

I’ll say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things. Rather, it’s a source of suffering because our desires are ever changing and we can never seem to satisfy them.

Even if we get what we want.

So clearly, giving into our desires every time they pop up, isn’t a healthy way to address them.

What are your values?

When we notice the Want Monster knocking on our door, we may want to ask if what it is offering matches the values we want to live by and the long-term goals we have for ourselves.

We don’t always need to tell the Want Monster to click its heels three times and disappear. Addressing it with some calm can resolve the conflict the quickest.

If you haven’t thought through your values and long-term desires, you may want to take a few minutes from your day to think about it. Here is the example I wrote at 21.

The “If/Only” test

Another helpful pointer from Toni Bernhard (bloody love every word she puts on paper).

It helps us find out – do we think we’ll be completely satisfied if we got this one thing?

If only I had my sisters chicken wings, I’d be satisfied.

If only I wasn’t ill, I’d be completely happy.

If only I had new shoes, I’d feel better with my shoe collection.

If only I had this new job, I’d feel useful again.

Looking over these things, it seems odd to think that one new thing can put an end to the desires that we have. That isn’t to say they can’t help but I suggest we try moving away from believing that satisfying the Want Monster is the way to get it to leave.

After I had my sister’s chicken wings, I went back to the kitchen to look for more. There weren’t anymore.

Our happiness quickly gives way to new wants and don’t wants.

Focus on the desire rather than the object of the desire

The above test helps gently shift our attention towards mindfully thinking about the fact that we’re desiring something rather than what we are desiring.

It is helpful to realise that satisfying particular desires doesn’t lead to sustained happiness because more appear in its place.

When we notice this desire, we can simply let it be. With time, it’ll pass. That’s why it’s said, “if you want something, wait a week and see if you forget about it”. (OK, it’s probably more elegant than that but I’m an amateur.)

Desires aren’t all bad.

To end, I want to clarify something that could be easily mistaken. Don’t take this as me saying all desires are bad.

I’ve used the term Want Monster because unchecked desires can often lead us down a dangerous path.

We begin to follow our desires blindly rather than let our desires be guided by our values. If we want junk food but we also have a greater aim to feed your body good foods, it is the Want Monster guiding us to make decisions, for example.

Generally, the Want Monster is much more focused on the short term rather than the long term.

Mindfully addressing our desires and remembering the unquenchable thirst will allow us to live closer to our personal values and get things that mean the most to us.

If I could go back in time, I would give my sister’s chicken wings back and enjoy my rice and stew in peace.


As always, thank you for reading!

No question for today. All I ask is that you share your thoughts on this topic!

Comment down below :)

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Further Reading:

You want that? Well I want it, too! The neuroscience of mimetic desire

How to Wake Up

The Courage to be Wrong

Realising we’re wrong can be quite worrying. If we’ve erred there must be something that is wrong with us even if it’s a small thing. It is usually greeted with feelings of shame, anger, sadness or even apathy towards our development. If we get something wrong now, why bother trying again?

Even though, we understand that humans are fallible beings, it is still difficult to accept the feeling of wrongness. We may even look at various motivational quotes say things like “failure is the path to success” or “I can accept failure but I can’t accept not trying” but still close the door on being wrong.

Why does being wrong feel bad?

In light of all of the opinions we have about being wrong and how it’s okay, we’d probably expect to have different attitudes towards it.

The reason why being wrong is viewed negatively negative is due to the various cultural attitudes we have towards it. We view wrongness as harmful, unable to be salvaged or improved upon. When we hear about important mistakes and how they’re damaging to either people’s lives or finances or anything you can think of, we hope to never been in their position.

These attitudes  are also found in our education.  The person who does poorly on a test or ask really simple questions is often viewed as dumb person in the class. They hold back the smarter students from progressing, they mustn’t have studied and they may even frustrate teachers. So when someone gets something wrong they feel like they’ve failed themselves and they’re going to disrupt other people.

It results in a fear about being wrong.

Is Being Wrong OK? 

Of course it is! Failure is the path to success etcetera etcetera. We all ‘know’ this but should we really believe it and take it seriously?

I think so.

When we find we’re wrong, a few things happen. We’re given the choice to keep our false belief or accept a new one. We might fear that we’ve slipped down the ladder of knowledge and can’t climb back up.

These situations aren’t bad. They’re just difficult to handle which is why we sometimes react so negatively to being wrong. But that may not be necessary.

Being wrong about things gives us an opportunity to further knowledge rather than wallow in how little knowledge we apparently have. We have to overcome our resistance to changing our minds.

Embracing our ability to be wrong is difficult and obviously isn’t as simple as just being happy with being wrong about everything. I’m not asking we think being wrong is the best thing possible. As some people may object, getting some things wrong affect the well-being of people in drastic ways and should be chastised rather than encouraged. Here they point to a surgeon making a mistake in a surgery or a bank charging the wrong person exorbitant fees. To that I say:

1) They happen all the time and should be corrected.

2) It’s unrealistic to expect perfection in all decisions regardless of their importance. Such an expectation creates the excuse we see wrongness as inherently bad.

3) Most people can be wrong about things without any severe consequence.

Embracing our ability to be wrong means that we view it as a normal part of decision-making and belief forming. It isn’t something that should create the fear of being judged as stupid and unable to change our opinions.

Fearing wrongness paralyses our progress and prevents us from trying to improve. We’re far more likely to just stay in our comfort zone where mistakes are less frequent and echo chambers are especially loud.

It takes some courage to admit being wrong and use that experience to further ourselves rather than viewing it as an unrepairable fault.

If it offers any comfort, I could be wrong about all of this and we can continue shaming people who get things wrong and feeling bad when we make mistakes.

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This post was inspired by Kathryn Schulz who gave a brilliant TED talk on being wrong. She also wrote a book about it called ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error’. I read it last year and thought it was great and can recommend it without reservation (unless you just hate non-fiction books).

So if I write more about wrongness, blame her.