What is it that people actually want?
Can we ever be truly satisfied?
It is a question for the ages, “what do people want?”, something which has occupied the minds of history’s greatest thinkers though the problem is sometimes dressed differently.
Before we get into it I’ll start with this: I think very few people end up getting what they want in life. I believe this is primarily because most people either do not know what they want or they aren’t honest with themselves/scared to go after what they want. I find it to be less a result of lacking financial means, let’s say, and more an issue of lack of self-knowledge, skills and proper guidance/aims.
When we think of what people want this usually refers to things like life meaning, fulfilment and/or satisfaction, career or social success and material possessions – and I’ll return to these in a moment.
Human beings have a nature in which we desire things and this aspiration and striving has led to many innovations over time, but if we don’t obtain what we desire we become dissatisfied and unhappy, sometimes greatly. A lot of the time our want to be happy manifests itself more often as a desire to not be miserable, which is not technically the same thing. This is partly due to our inherent negativity bias skewing us to avoid pain at a greater rate than to approach pleasure – we’d generally take a problem free day or avoiding a conflict with our partner over pina coladas at the beach, for instance.
Following the general life progression path usually satisfies the majority of the aforementioned wants (meaning, career and social success etc). As a kid you want to grow up and finish (leave?) school, then it’s on towards getting a trade or going to university with a job or career in mind. Then you’ll want to find a partner (if you haven’t already). Next, wanting a house to live in. Afterwards, a possible desire for your own family before wanting to accumulate wealth (as children deplete wealth am I right, folks?) by the time of your retirement and potential grandkids. Subsequently, upon reaching the closure of one’s life, you reflect back and (hopefully) go, “yes, I lived a life that I wanted to”, and are ultimately fulfilled.
"The safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy." - Arthur Schopenhauer
Ever the optimist was Schopenhauer haha!
Sadly for Schopenhauer, a lot of people want to very happy, and believe the path to said happiness is through career and social success and the acquisition of material possessions. Through our desire for status, wealth/money/resources, authority and control, competition and challenge, career success is at the forefront for most people. We also have a desire to be well liked and received, to formulate beneficial networks/relations and to develop deep and meaningful connections as well as that of an intimate partner. Career success helps to widen the pool for finding a potential mate. We have a desire to make life easier, better and more comfortable for ourselves, and this can be achieved through the acquisition of material possessions. The consumerist lifestyle is one only too familiar in modern times, though it is endless and you will never be totally satisfied living it. A lot of it stems from vanity and ego; bigger, better, newer, prettier. It also comes from companies creating the need – that somehow you are deficient without their product or service – and this is done through endless amounts of research/data, marketing techniques and understanding (or is that exploiting/manipulating?) human psychology.
I find it a shame that more people don’t aim to be a complete human being. As I wrote about previously as why I pursue a philosophical life, the more understanding and aware we become of ourselves (and others), the more we know about the nature of being (who we are, why we do what we do), the better off you and everybody else will be. You become wiser and more enlightened, not so you can be the pretentious smug…*coughs* person, who looks down on everyone, but so you can be the one guiding people towards a greater path. Think about how you can provide and contribute in society; how you can be productive and help/be of service to others. Sadly, a lot of people are too selfish to realise the benefits of pursuing life in this manner. WE rather than ME, people, and I guarantee your life will start to improve.
I find it very satisfying to overcome a weakness or deficiency of mine, like becoming more proficient in Italian and playing the piano, or if I’m able to resolve an internal conflict that I’m having. It’s a very Nietzschean idea that of overcoming or conquering oneself, of which Ol’ Friedrich believed it to be an eternal struggle. That’s the thing when it comes to suffering – it’s almost as if we need something to struggle against. We’re certainly built for it. Reduce the amount of unnecessary suffering, surely, but to voluntarily accept the inherent suffering of life so that we can transcend the suffering and live a meaningful life and create a better world for you and the people around you.
That’s why I believe it can be helpful to reshape the question from “what do you want?”, to “what are you aiming at?”
"Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit." - George Carlin
Sadly, I think George is on the money (pun intended) with a significant part of the population. The hedonic pleasure-seeking bend to our modern way of life, the mind-numbing entertainment people choose after a day of work – numbing these people to the dread and despair of their existence so they can get on the hamster wheel tomorrow. The pervasive nihilism and meaninglessness as we’re told how horrible, wrong and dangerous we are, that there is no point to anything and we’re all doomed anyway – while in the middle of a global pandemic set to not end anytime soon. A little more appeal to "the better angels of our nature", please.
I know it’s not easy at the moment, but I ask again, what are you aiming at? You have to have an aim. And it isn’t precisely attaining the aim that makes you happy – as generally when you attain a goal the happiness is fleeting and you have to come up with another aim – it is seeing yourself progress along to achieving it.
So, what is it that people want and can be ever truly be satisfied? The second question is easier than the first, and I’ll answer it with a "yes", but it requires paying attention and adjusting as one goes through life. As for the first, I’ll list what I think people want (or should want):
· To be understood
· To love and be loved
· To be a part of something bigger than themselves
· That their life meant something (to themselves and/or others)
· To leave the world in a better place than when they started
· To have enough resources to live well/comfortably
· To have enough control over the direction and outcome of their life
· To find contentment and peace