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What you want is never a thing

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He definitely thought nobody was around, but the four of us could see his self-consciousness from across the lot even before he parked. He pulled up, popped the trunk, and left the engine running.

He was about five feet tall. From our distance he looked like a sweater with a beard. Using a plastic snowshovel he produced from somewhere, he started to scoop into his trunk fresh topsoil from the bathtub-sized planters on the boulevard.

It took me a moment to realize that what we were watching unfold was the premeditated theft of quality dirt. The planters had been topped up by the community centre maintenence guy earlier in the day. He had waited until it was dark.

“Who steals dirt?” my friend asked loudly to nobody in particular.

The bearded man paused, then with a conspicuous absence of haste, placed the shovel in the trunk and slowly drove away as if nothing had happened, even though the trunk was still open. We watched him continue down the block away from us, trunk gaping. He made a complete stop at the stop sign — a rare thing to see, at any time — making full use of his turn signals, and disappeared while we laughed.

For a moment I felt an odd hit of guilt, because we had spoiled his plan. Even though it was a stupid, selfish plan, I recognized that he was just trying to improve his position in life in some tiny way, and that’s what he came up with. Driving away like a fool with the trunk open while we laughed at him was a byproduct of a tiny thread of his overall life’s work — his own personal pursuit of happiness.

You could say that the pursuit of happiness ultimately drives everything we do, no matter how dumb those things are. This is a peculiar fact of life for our species: well-being is what we all want and need, yet it’s so delicate and fickle and overall we are embarassingly bad at achieving it.

At first thought it may be hard to believe that people can do terrible and self-destructive things in the name of happiness. Nearly everything we do can be attributed to a desire for feelings of either security, power, or sense gratification, all of which our bodies and minds tell us are the ingredients to happiness.

These three motives stem from the most basic and ancient parts of our brains — they are what promises a creature its best chance of survival and prosperity. They tend to trump everything else, and the behavior it creates is often so unconscious that we don’t realize quite what it is we’re after. Logic can’t compete with these drives, not without some serious internal work — self examination and practice, which are both still bafflingly underrated as tools for cultivating a richer life.

And so people do the stupidest things in the pursuit of happiness. Buy homes they can’t afford. Get into dangerous relationships. Spend thousands at Starbucks. Hoard so much useless junk in their garage that that can’t even put their car inside. Rob convenience stores. Blow up synagogues. Go to law school when they don’t want to. Drink and drive. Order the same thing on the menu every time. Fight people at drinking establishments. Go on Dr Phil. Let talents stagnate and dry up. Amass insurmountible debt. Live exactly like their parents did, and shame others for being different.

It’s so bizarre that we all have this single common interest, to find well-being, and that we spend so little time actually talking about it. You would think our schools would teach it.

We don’t, and it’s probably because we think we already know how to find happiness, which usually involves acquiring something we don’t have. More money, better security, more affection. In other words, we think happiness is created by making some kind of change in the material world. Putting something into our possession, eliminating a threat, seizing control of something. 

The mistake we make is that we confuse what we want with symbols of what we want. We human beings seem to be the first animal capable of abstraction, and we make great use of symbols. Certain events come to promise feelings of freedom, like when you leave the office on a Friday, or when someone else says they’ll take a project off your hands. Some events represent feelings of worth, like when everyone laughs at your joke, or when your crush flirts with you.

We have a way of evaluating everything that happens, and every possession we acquire, in terms of what feelings we believe are promised by a given thing or event. The material event and the feelings that event represents are not the same thing. But we forget that all the time.

All we ever seek, and all we ever avoid are feelings. Feelings run the world. They constitute the only useful product of all material transactions between humans and their environment. Just like your body can’t use the food it eats for energy until it’s turned to glucose, we can’t really make use of the things we seek until they deliver certain feelings. Feelings are the currency of human experience. They are the only real incentive.

I seek money, because some part of me knows that with it I can buy things and do things that will deliver feelings of joy, security, wonder, or freedom. I want those feelings and so I often think it is actually the money that I want.

I avoid traffic jams, because some part of me knows that they will deliver feelings of frustration. It’s really feelings of frustration I want to avoid, but often think that a big expanse of slowly moving cars is itself a terrible thing.

If I’m not conscious of what material thing is symbolizing what feeling in my mind, then I run the risk of mistaking the material thing to be what I actually want, or what I want to avoid.

The dysfunctional hoarder you see on television has lost track of what she wants. She’s trying to hoard feelings of safety from the guilt she feels when she wastes things. Her stuff symbolizes that feeling of security to her, and so she sleeps on a patch of futon that she clears magazines from each night.

The terrorist who bombs the synagogue is trying to blow up his feelings of frustration and powerlessness over living in an occupied territory. He believes he’ll find the catharsis he needs by doing this.

The overextended husband who buys too much house thinks he is actually buying relief from the shame he feels about having grown up poor. He won’t get that relief, and he will pay dearly for trying. He thinks the house is what he wants.

All terrible decisions, made ultimately in the pursuit of happiness.

Every horrible story in your newspaper is somebody seeking a feeling they think will bring them closer to happiness — or more often, take them farther from unhappiness. They don’t realize it’s feelings they’re seeking though. They believe that a particular change in the material world is what they want. A bigger car. A life insurance settlement. A law degree. A dead mistress. A trunkful of free topsoil.

Why are we so prone to this mistake? Because we’ve been given a powerful tool that we don’t know how to use yet. We’re millions of years of reptile brain wrapped in a thin layer of abstraction and intuition and reason. It’s a poweful setup but we’re still working out techniques. That’s why there’s never been a shortage of philosophers trying to break it all down, arguing about the best way to live.

Some ways are better than others, definitely. We can’t help but stumble upon a few of them while we’re out and about in the world, even if we have no plan at all. But in the mean time you’ll be doing better than 90% of the pack if you make a habit of thinking about what feelings you’re actually seeking when you feel like you want a thing. What you want is never a thing.


Photo by tsuacctnt

This and 16 other classic Raptitude articles can be found in This Will Never Happen Again. Now available for your e-reader, mobile device, or PC. See reviews here.

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CB July 23, 2012 at 8:21 am

I think I’ll be mulling this one over for days. Lots of food for thought.

Mark Steele July 23, 2012 at 8:45 am

I’m thinking, how funny: The first thing I thought to do after reading this great column was to print it out so I’d HAVE it! It was just a total reflex–I enjoyed this thing so I wanted to own it. Of course what I enjoyed was the happy feeling, the pleasure of reading something that struck a chord in me and made me tingle.

So now how do I print out and save just the tingle?

David July 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm

CTRL + Tingle

Andrew October 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Fascinating response… lol, I like how you caught yourself!

Ellen March 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Did you ever save your “tingle”?

Collin July 23, 2012 at 8:57 am

I’ve been taking great pleasure in getting rid of all my things. Between eBay/Craigslist/Goodwill/Friends I’m hoping that by this time next month I’ll have nothing but a backpack.

michael platania July 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

You nailed it! “You would think our schools would teach it.” I have said this many times. Our education system is so backwards. We should be teaching children how to be more fully human, to learn and understand how their mind and bodies work, let each person discover their own path to knowledge. Unfortunately what you wrote will go over the heads of the masses, they are to absorbed in getting their latest Starbucks fix, new gadget or bigger house – all of which is great – but they don’t understand what is beneath those desires. Feelings are what control our lives.

Marie July 23, 2012 at 9:20 am

If we could all just take a moment to think about this before we make any decision, we’d understand ourselves a little better. This seems like a very grounding exercise.

Emelia July 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

Brilliant. Enough said.

Vilx- July 23, 2012 at 10:09 am

I wonder then – what is the solution? How do we avoid all those horrible decisions? I see two paths – First path is to try and appease our feelings. First identify them, ALL of them, then figure out ways to fulfill them, keeping an eye out for conflicting emotions and the backfire of our own actions. Second path is the opposite – try and get rid of all feelings, becoming something like logical robots. Both are difficult, if not impossible. But that’s OK. That’s something to strive for. The question is – which one is the best path?

Avi July 23, 2012 at 11:21 am

That’s a weirdly unnecessary binary! Both of those choices are recipes for disaster, since we can’t ignore our feelings, and not all of our feelings should be indulged.

David July 23, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Ah, you’ve identified the buddha’s dilemma between indulgence on one side, and asceticism on the other side. He came up with what he called a “middle way”, which boiled down to being aware of the play of desires as they arise, and learning how they work. That’s all I’m suggesting here.

James July 31, 2012 at 4:52 am

I see where you’re coming from on this, but – in the end, you’re treating this as a problem to be solved, as if something has gone wrong that needs to be corrected.

Perhaps another way to look at it would be that it’s the nature of the sea we swim in, and imagining that it’s the “thing” we want, we’re mistaking the nature of that sea. That we mistake the thing for the feeling often is the way we are made, and the problem comes from our being capable of imagining a world in which we never do that, or can avoid doing that, in a way that always satisfies.

Andrew July 23, 2012 at 10:40 am

I loved so much about this post and it’s a topic I’ve been seriously pondering for years. The problem with people isn’t that they try to seek too much happiness, as many would say in religious cultures, but rather that the pleasures they resort to are very small and petty. As I grow in understanding my life becomes more of a pursuit of happiness, not less. Jesus said “do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life”, which I think goes right in line with what was said here. And personally I have found no greater nor more enduring pleasure than discovering Jesus.

Matthew July 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

How in he world did you know I went to law school without really wanting to?

= )

Fascinating as usual. We must all work toward being conscious of our motivation for the choices we make (or choose not to make). Alas, we will likely never be good enough at achieving that level of consciousness, but after all, there is joy in the journey.

Maia July 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Interesting…the thing is though that whatever thing we get and the feeling it gives us is only temporary. Soon the feeling will pass and we will need a bigger and better thing to give us the same feeling, which will forever leave us seeking more. The solution? Be happy with what we have. We can get more, but we shouldn’t think that more will make us happier. We should hopefully have inner peace whatever the circumstances, now that’s something to strive for I’d say.

Trisha Rainsford July 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Excellent post and excellent point about how we use things to symbolise feelings. They all exist though, – the things do exist and if, for example, you experience great poverty or even hunger you will be experiencing something that has material substance (or lack thereof) as well as a side order of feeling frightened/humiliated etc.

Trisha Rainsford July 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Sorry – I accidentally sent that before I finished – I meant to add that I think you are right about how we mistakenly think we can ‘fix’ a feeling with a thing – the important skill we need is to be able to distinguish between them – so we can actually hope to fix/heal anything.

Mike July 30, 2012 at 5:23 am

Because, conversely, we also try to fix things with emotions (i.e. the environment). We should remember that material needs require materials to fill them, and emotional needs require emotions, not the things that produce them.

Karen J July 30, 2012 at 10:18 am

That’s an excellent follow-thru, Mike.
Thank you!

Sharon July 23, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Thanks for this post. I recently learned inadvertently that I am seeking joy and not things. I decided to start a garden this spring so that I could save money at the grocery store. So far I’ve grown a handful of cherry tomatoes and four cucumbers. I haven’t saved a cent however I have experienced so much joy from gardening. On weekends my neighbor tends his garden and he shares his tips, seedlings, enthusiasm, and joy with me.

Rusty Southwick July 23, 2012 at 9:22 pm

A truly topical item, and wonderfully distilled… The logical and highly simplistic explanation that most of modern humanity tends to follow is that more is better, and according to that we should be accumulating increased amounts in order to derive greater satisfaction. Such is one of the great illusions of life.

Somewhere the notion of diminishing returns didn’t get factored in by people in too much of an energizing rush to notice. Conversely, he that first loses his life shall find it… anyone?

A possible intriguing follow-up to this concept later on is the process for training oneself to appreciate more what is already there, while still balancing that with proper ambition to stretch farther. If we could develop true discipline, I believe we each have the capacity within us to derive even greater satisfaction than we are experiencing without the need to accumulate or attach it to possessions.

We have to unlearn the mistaken notion marketers have trained us on, which is that your joy is attached to continually upping the ante. Perhaps we could instead be “lowering the anti-“.

Steph in Berkeley July 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm

priceless. funny enough, i’ve been obsessed, like researching multi-hours a day for several days now about getting a vitamix. i’ve had a ball thinking of how much joy i’ll get from it. but what i’m really obsessed with is something i don’t know if i’ll actually get…a sense of greater control and ease when cooking, greater health and greater variety in diet, all lending to a hoped for feeling of having all my “shit” together. that’s a lot to ask of a vitamix, ey?

Julie July 24, 2012 at 4:34 pm

So accurate…..and so well written.

Mk July 25, 2012 at 6:32 am

Nice article! Loved it.

Anthony B. July 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Thank you! An amazing analysis… so very true. There’s a roadblock to escaping from this mentality. I start to think, “Alright, well I don’t really want a nice car or a good job, I just want to feel free from the authorities that controlled my childhood.” But then I think, “But I’ll never have those feelings unless I have these things,” which is completely untrue.

For me, the definition of spirituality is the ability to be happy, or content, in any situation. This means being able to reassess my priorities, be thankful for what I have, and sometimes just emotionally separate myself from the situation at hand.

I want the feeling of wonder that I get from knowledge and travel, the feelings of creativity and accomplishment from making art and music, and the feeling of deep connection to my closest friends.

Thanks again for this article.

kitschculture July 29, 2012 at 1:33 am

Yea, you’d think they’d teach it – but as you mentioned in your “How to become a billionaire” post, the point is to keep people chasing this elusive idea of happiness indefinitely.

I don’t think any government would want its citizens to be self-fulfilled (they’d be useless as followers). Our current capitalist system especially doesn’t want self-fulfillment because it preaches consumption and profit above all else.

eben July 30, 2012 at 1:02 am

its a good read…makes you think too….but i kind of disagree….

nature is abundant in nature…what we look for too, is abundance..yes, the means are sometimes questionable and unethical..you have quite correctly stated the whole philosophy of wants and need, which according to you is a problem, i guess…but you haven’t given a solution..hence for me, there is no value in this article (its a personal opinion :) …

we are meant to be abundant..and not just abundant in ‘things’ but abundant in contentment, joy, love, wisdom and knowledge..in hinduism, Lakshmi- the goddess of wealth is married to Narayana- the god of knowledge and wisdom….so, if your journey in life is for wisdom, wealth automatically follows….. :)

Karen J July 30, 2012 at 10:28 am

But eben, David’s never claimed that it’s *his job* to provide us with solutions – that’s OUR job – for each of us, personally. He’s trying to make us examine our own truisms, assumptions and actions in light of a different perspective. Clearly, he’s succeeded (once again – Thank you, David!)

Andy July 30, 2012 at 2:14 am

But even attachment to feelings leads to suffering.

Leon July 30, 2012 at 5:18 am

Beautiful to have someone with the exact same views on life right it down in words.

Danny July 30, 2012 at 9:44 am

Great article! Thanks for writing and sharing it.

Honey August 3, 2012 at 7:37 am

Hoarding isn’t always about the person’s own security. It’s about not letting things go because you can’t ensure the security of the thing you let go. It’s like Tom Hanks screaming for Wilson in the ocean. From a distance you or I could say, “Wilson is going to be fine.” But we don’t know that. So is that about security or love?
I like hoarders, because if they can’t throw a newspaper away they probably can’t throw another person away either. I think it’s a form of angst. I don’t think it’s stupid to feel angst. But yeah, sometimes we have to learn to let Wilson fend for himself. “Hey Wilson, it’s been real! See you around.”

ALM August 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I mostly agree. However, right now I really need a car. No feelings, just a thing with four wheels that would be extremely useful to me. I suppose “useful” easily translates into well-being and well-being generally makes one happy so it translates into feelings. Useful = makes happy. I still simply need a car!

Tyler G. August 7, 2012 at 9:25 pm


Great article my friend! I’m a new-be to your website, and stumbled upon it via Stumbleupon. :)

I’m insanely jealous of your philosophical approach to life matters, although, I’m only seventeen, but I’m trying to draw the right- flexible- path to get me to somewhere you’re at. Great article again, I’ll definitely try to consciously incorporate objectively looking at my desires and other emotions that arise!

PS. Is it alright, David, if I would use (though not plagiarize, but alter) some of your key phrases, such as: “What you want is never a thing.” or “All we ever seek, and all we ever avoid are feelings. Feelings run the world.” these would be terrific for my writing. Hope you’ll understand.

Tyler G. August 7, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Dismiss the plethora of grammatical errors; I swear I can wright well. Haha.

Drew September 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I’ve found this website a few weeks ago and passed over this article a few times. Today, I am glad that I stopped to read it. I’ve just been dealt a serious blow to my professional life in a not so professional manner. Did I really need to have what I wanted our was I trying to just fufil what I thought I wanted. I realized that I was doing it for the right reasons, to be happy. Was this the only path to happieness? Probably not. I still have a long path to ponder what it is that will make me happy.

Karen October 8, 2012 at 8:04 am

1. Once we are aware of this association we humans have created between feelings and symbols, and lets say, in a perfect(?) universe, we are able to distinguish between the two… then what? What other path is there to take to deliver these feelings without the use of symbols? (How else can you achieve security without seeking money?)

2. Could you send over links/titles/names/works of “philosophers trying to break it all down, arguing about the best way to live”? Want to read further.

Thank you, great piece!

Jo November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am

So, when you do realize the intuition behind wanting something, what’s next?

sal February 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm

thanks for sharing !!

Megan March 13, 2013 at 9:43 am

So true. Ever heard of the Hedonic Treadmill? It states that no matter how much extrinsic stuff we seek to find our happiness, we ultimately top off and plateau with our happiness as we haven’t done the real work of seeking intrinsic goals. But yes, in the end, we never want things.

Shreyans March 16, 2013 at 2:12 am

In Indian philosophy, there is a very interesting paradigm called the PanchaKosha. It says we are made of 5 sheaths (in order of increasing subtlety): the body, breath, mind, feelings and consciousness. The body desires material objects because the breath is feverish for obtaining them. The breath turns feverish because the mind has thoughts wanting to obtain these objects. The mind wants to obtain these objects because it believes it will receive a very happy feeling by doing it.

But then what causes these feelings to be wanted? What is their source? It says, deep within we are pure joy and all our feelings are distortion of the same joy/consciousness. So, all we really seek is to be who we really are deep within. And hence, the true solution does not lie in seeking material objects, but in looking deep within – in meditating :-)

Something on the lines of this: http://mehtashreyans.blogspot.in/2010/01/seeking-of-joy.html

Louis-Ferdinand Céline August 2, 2013 at 9:26 am

This is probably one of the best articles I’ve read on Raptitude, the insights are very close to the kind of thought promoted by Roland Barthes, one of my favourite writers. I’d recommend Mythologies if you’re interested in reading up more on the gap between the symbol and reality, its a short but incredibly eye-opening book.

smiling vulture August 4, 2013 at 7:21 am

These Starbucks comment are ridiculous now, since, I can’t become a millionaire because I spend 30 mins Starbucks,I will always be in poverty because I go to Starbucks.I paid my mortgage off,have a good disposable income,and holy Mary mother of god,did this while going to Starbucks,hey I maybe I could of done it quicker but I enjoy my 30 mins downtime sitting relaxing with my coffee.

Garrett August 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm

There are fiscal and moral reasons to avoid Starbucks. But Starbucks is hardly integral to David’s piece, and only one other person even commented on Starbucks as far as I can tell.

Garrett August 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

“Ethical” would have been a better choice than “moral.” My bad.

disiakay January 20, 2014 at 2:11 am

The difference between “wanting” and “Knowing what you want”, is the difference between “living” and “Being”…

Unfortunately, we’re not giving it all we’ve got, and we’re usually acting like the person we are not…

Ravenelle March 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm

You should know ye’ u’ z …this’eth’ , I am all about the embrace of, “more is more”. I am an AND person, it is okay to want both or all, or none. I do not like bugs much, and or snakes. I like to make Art AND Food, AND Places for conversations core to core, stardust in our eyes.

We are all connected, be excellent to one another. I will try to be excellent to you. Happy Thursday Friday!

canice May 9, 2014 at 4:25 am

i disagree with the following paragraph:
“The terrorist who bombs the synagogue is trying to blow up his feelings of frustration and powerlessness over living in an occupied territory. He believes he’ll find the catharsis he needs by doing this.”

because there are many kinds of terrorism and also, some of the things that may be called “terrorism” is just self-defence, for example Palestinians are sometimes called terrorists when they do some violent actions, but people who call them terrorists fail to think about what ANY human being would do if you had a 45+ years-long occupation, with your land being stolen, your children killed, and chemical weapons being rained down on you from the sky, plus closed borders, no opportunities for education or travel or work, etc..

and some terrorism is done for money, or because a powerful country is using a group as a cover for an operation.

just a note.

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