Taking Control of Your Desires

Posted on May 22, 2018 by Robert Ringer


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.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

23 responses to “Taking Control of Your Desires”

  1. Jule says:

    Deep, but I LOVE it! Take control. Make the pro and con list!

  2. dsmith622 says:

    You've served some serious food for thought (and for acting upon?) here, Robert!

  3. Richard Lee Van Der says:

    Because I am still alive and functioning productively at age 82, I can really relate to what this discussion is talking about! Thinking about our satisfactions in the various categories of life, there is always choice, and, fortunately, INNER GUIDANCE if we are aware of it. As well as experiential guidance, if we remain alert and aware. Because I have lived a fairly long life, I can look back and see the patterns, and it is sometimes amazing to behold how i got from one point to another both inner and outer! A person just has to "stay awake" to understand. And those of us who do, realize how amazing one's life is or can be. Like one of my mentors told me after setting me up for a tour, I didn't say it would be "easy". I said it would be "good", and it was!

  4. Ivan says:

    My way of taking control of my desires is to self discipline myself by doing without something for a day. For example, something as simple as not watching television for a day or going without sugar. It seems to build confidence and self discipline, thus feeling in control and feeling good about myself. Starting with the simple things and building up to what really matters helps me in choosing successful habits and saying no to the bad habits.

    • Jim Hallett says:

      Sounds like a wise approach to things. Most people try to change everything all at once, and fall into overwhelm, so end up changing nothing or, perhaps, making the change, but not for very long, so they end up where they started from. Eating habits in particular can be radically improved in a very short period of time by just starting with one habit and moving on from there until you end up with a pretty healthy diet, and it didn't feel like it was really hard.

  5. Jurgy says:

    Robert, you mention luck – no such thing …

    • Rock Roach says:

      tell that to someone who won the Fla.Lottery,a wsop poker tourney,or Bill Belichek( a great coach that had 2 super bowls handed to him).

      • Jurgy says:

        agree that winning a lottery can be defined as luck, but winning a tournament, whether it be poker or foolball, comes from focus, commitment and plain hard work … try it sometime and your results will astound you

  6. Robert Mish says:


    Your article chronicles the journey that most of all of us travel over the course of life. Although I was a young reader and student of Nathaniel Branden who wrote extensively on the subject, and a friend of Harry Browne with whom we would discuss this very dilemma (as well as numerous others) when he stopped by, I was not able to subordinate my terminal desires to my intellectual ones until later in life. Or put in another way, after the terminal desires became a result of rather than a competitor of my intellectual desires.

    For example, until women would excite me mostly because of my affinity with their cultural, political, health practices, and sense of life (rather than their textbook sexuality), and I felt nothing if she was “hot” but otherwise scum, I was free. When I became a student of the life extension sciences, slowing the aging process, and maximizing immunity in this toxic world, I lost all taste for unhealthful “food”, and grew to appreciate natural foods I rarely ate when I was younger. Today I look at or smell most desserts or processed junk foods and I cringe. The point is, I do not have to “give up” any desires. My desires now match my intellect. There is nothing to “control” anymore. Nothing to “practice”. All I had to do was learn enough about what was important to my intellect.



    p.s. Your Looking Out for #1 was one of the books I read which most influenced my life journey. Thank you. Since you mentioned Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World & Why Government Doesn’t Work were two others.

    • notpropagandized says:

      Why does it have to take so many years for desires to obey intellect, for some of us anyway?

      • Richard Lee Van Der says:

        Early life condtioning.

      • Jean says:

        Don't beat yourself up – there's a lot of brain chemistry involved in those "feel-good" desires as well. It takes maturity and insight to take control over behavior when emotions are at play. I've counseled far too many chronologically mature but otherwise emotion-driven women to let their brains, rather than their hearts, choose their next mate. When 15 red flags show up during dating but the woman marries him anyway (or worse, gets pregnant without marriage and 'hopes' he comes around), you have to drive the point home repeatedly that there really is a better way.

        • notpropagandized says:

          So true. There was a lot of wisdom practiced by many, but certainly not all, in prior generations across the socio-economic strata in USA. It was relatively strong on giving exhortation and practice in resisting. Resisting what? Well, many called it resisting evil or resisting temptation or resisting sin or resisting crossing defined lines or boundaries of behavior for good reasons, hopefully explained along the way with all due candor appropriate for age. We would do well to re-weave loving admonitions into the fabric of our culture with open arms (like Billy Graham's) to receive the wayward and repentant into a redirected and better future.

  7. Sydney Sydney says:

    I think Loretta Breuning's book : How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power is interesting.
    She explains her theory of how neurochemicals drive our basic behavior.

  8. Rick G. says:

    Losing control of one's ability to handle and control one's desires is one of the biggest reasons people nowadays are suffering from financial stress. They want everything they see and enough is never enough. The media bombards us with products and services by telling us we 'need" this or that, and we are not "complete" or "good enough" unless we have it. And access to the availability of credit cards only fuels it. They can't afford it today, but by using a credit card, it will get paid off somehow someday. A lot of times we see something we think we want, but later find out we didn't really want it afterall. Just look at the amount of returns that come back in retail stores, not only after Christmas, but all year long. I know I get into that trap by just browsing through stores and seeing something that I believe will make my life better and living more more easy only to end up buying it, taking it home, and it just sits there. Then I wonder why did I ever buy that in the first place? So, I make it a point just to go into a store, get what I truly need and not wander around looking for something else to buy, and get out of there. Same way with shopping online, especially Amazon. I make sure what product or service I buy is something that I truly want or truly need. Keep your sales receipt. You may need it.

    • patg2 says:

      A lot of this is just plain willingness to be manipulated because we look for artificial ways to be better than anyone else, instead of basing it on solid achievement. As long as we care what the other person thinks, whether he shares our ethics or not, and as long as we entertain greed, there will be problems. I have never been particularly motivated by any of these things, and it is very liberating. I tend to buy some things because of their natural beauty, because I cultivate beauty. I buy things that allow me to create beauty. I take care of myself, and take personal responsibility very seriously. Advertising hype is cliche, tells you nothing of the value or utility of a product, and is designed to get you to buy something you don't need or want, and for most people it works because they "need" to be better than their neighbor without bothering to earn real achievement.

    • Richard Lee Van Der says:

      It took me almost my first 30 years before deciding to NEVER AGAIN use a credit card. Refused even to make payments on expensive cars. I bought GOOD used ones for CASH. Those were some of the ways I allowed myself at least relative freedom! How many, many people who call themselves intelligent allow themselves to be controlled by DEBT! There's more to the story, but that for starters.

      • Rick G. says:

        As Robert Ringer always said, "Actions have consequences." How true, how true. Some lessons are never learned.

      • Jim Hallett says:

        This is particularly true for the USA, as it is now a totally consumer culture "financed" by debt. Quality is low, advertising hype is everywhere, and given the horrid example of the irresponsible govt. and all its schemes and scams, the citizens follow suit. Turning off the TV is a good start to reduce all the marketing hype. Regarding cars, I read a detailed article that said the real sweet spot is buying a car for cash in very good condition that is 10 years old (older than I would have thought) since all the depreciation has expired, and if you stick to quality models like Honda, Toyota, etc. (sorry, US brands), you can radically improve your finances as well.

        • Rick G. says:

          Hey Jim, I buy import names. I have a Honda Civic EX. They are by far superior automobiles that run better, better quality, and last longer if you take good care of them. I learned the hard way.

  9. patg2 says:

    Robert, this seems to be a somewhat fatalistic view of the world. I am sure you are aware that if you set high standards for yourself (as you have done), you will never reach them. This will be a continual source of frustration. The other thing I noticed is that your statement that a wise man can never be absolutely sure of anything, suggests that we can never reach a decision that serves us well, whether it be about the meaning of the universe, our personal meaning, or any other subject. Obviously nothing is ever 100% certain, but a thought that suggests merely that we can never be absolutely sure muddies the waters by suggesting that we can never make a firm decision about anything, because we will always doubt. I live with doubts, but they don't overcome my certainties. There ARE compelling answers out there. You have skirted around them many times. You have a higher ethic, but I'm not at all sure you know what the source of it is. It is a thought provoking article, but you have some distance yet to cover.

  10. Adm Tech says:

    Great Article, Robert. Delayed Gratification in most things usually pays higher dividends in the end. Easy to say, challenging to practice at times. But ultimately worth it. Thank you for this.

    • Richard Lee Van Der says:

      Yes, when I finally learned using "Delayed Gratification" wisely, I gained a lot of freedom. And personal freedom is and has been extremely important to me. Never (as an adult) electing to work for a boss (in college teaching, Dept ChairMEN were not bosses). And after that profession, I made a living as a Speaker, Counselor and other. Even now I have younger friends who live for the day they will "retire" and receive Big Money. I found and find life way more pleasant having and having had total freedom even if less money and so-called "security" than some others I know and have known. Depends on one's value, of course, AND one's abilities and talents. Many factors to consider. If you want to support many children, however, grab the nearest grindstone and place it to your nose! Etc.