A fundamental truth that I learned about desire from Harry Browne is that everyone’s desires are unlimited. That’s not to say we all have the same desires, just that we have an infinite number of desires.
Some of the more common desires include wealth, power, recognition, and, at the extreme end of the desire spectrum, bringing about world peace, ending hunger and suffering, discovering the meaning of life, and, above all, immortality.
Obviously, many of our desires can never be fulfilled. The wisest among us can never be absolutely certain about the meaning of life. Likewise, until someone produces proof to the contrary, it goes without saying that no one is immortal.
Putting aside for now the most extreme and abstract desires, the main problem we encounter with our unlimited desires is that they clash with our limited amount of time, energy, skills, financial resources, and, yes, luck. Many people have possessed a great deal of energy, skills, and financial resources only to run out of time and luck in their quest to fulfill their desire to defeat illness and old age.
Thus, given our limited time, energy, skills, financial resources, and luck, we have to pick and choose which desires are best for us over the long term. This is where the battle between success and failure is fought. It’s where the battle between happiness and unhappiness is fought. It’s where the battle between a meaningful life and a meaningless life is fought.
There are two kinds of desires — emotional and intellectual. In his book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, William B. Irvine refers to these as terminal desires and instrumental desires.
Irvine divides terminal desires into hedonic and nonhedonic, but I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a nonhedonic desire. It seems to me that all terminal desires are hedonic because they are always focused on bringing comfort or pleasure and avoiding discomfort or pain. Examples include such desires as wanting people to like us, admire us, respect us, even envy us.
Because they are based on emotion, terminal desires are mysterious. You don’t plan to have a terminal desire; it just appears in your mind, uninvited, as a result of emotion. Unfortunately, the desires that have the greatest impact on our lives are the ones over which we have the least amount of control. Hedonic terminal desires are at the very heart of instant gratification, and no one is immune to these emotionally engendered desires.
Terminal desires are desires for their own sake, while instrumental desires are focused on ways to fulfill terminal desires and thus are formed by the intellect. Our emotions are constantly playing the role of serpent to our intellect, which causes frequent conflict between the two. And, unfortunately, the serpent usually comes out ahead in these conflicts.
For example, if you’re hungry, you form a terminal desire to eat. This motivates you either to find food in the refrigerator that is ready to eat, cook something, or go to a restaurant. If you decide on the latter, your intellect may form an instrumental desire to go to a health food restaurant, but your emotions may want to satisfy your hunger pangs with junk food. In other words, a conflict.
Sex and infatuation are also classic examples of terminal desires, and they are probably the greatest challenge to our intellect. Unfortunately, the intellect tends to fare poorly against such terminal desires as sex and infatuation. I say unfortunately because problems arise when you take action on, say, your desire for sex based solely on emotion, in which case the results can range from bad to catastrophic.
So, what’s the best way to handle the ongoing conflicts between emotional (terminal) desires and intellectual (instrumental) desires? I believe the most sensible approach is to get in the habit of mentally listing the pros and cons of your emotional desires at any given time, then have the self-discipline to let your intellectual scorecard guide your actions. (Yes, it takes a lot of practice to develop such self-discipline, but the reality is that everything good in life requires effort.)
I’ve often changed my mind about doing something based on an emotional desire when my intellectual scorecard lists nine reasons not to do it and only one reason to do it (the latter, singular reason often being that it simply feels good).
Thus, one could make a compelling case that happiness and success usually boil down to a person’s ability to control his hedonic terminal desires. You know you’ve mastered desire when you no longer feel anxiety about not having the house you desire, the car you desire, the social status you desire, etc. It isn’t that you stop trying to better your life. It’s just that you use your intellect to fulfill healthy desires and suppress unhealthy desires.
Put another way, to live the life you want rather than allowing your emotional desires to determine how you live, you have to learn how to control the desire-formation process. As I said, it takes a lot of effort, but it’s not complicated. Meaning that it is within your control.