Why Desire is Dangerous

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that desire is dangerous.
The stoics and many other philosophers have expressed similar views. Epictetus rightfully recognized that desiring things outside of your control to go a certain way is to be avoided.
But even with the stuff we can control, desiring something can be dangerous.

But why is it so bad to desire something, I asked myself – isn’t it beautiful to desire a good life, a successful career, finding love or having a family? Humans and all animals are lazy by nature, we only expend as much energy as we need to, and if we were content with sitting in a cave, we’d still be sitting in a cave.
So why not set ambitious goals and start fueling our desire to get there? Isn’t that how the law of attraction is supposed to work?

The whole “desire is dangerous” idea didn’t fully click with me until I heard investor and thinker Naval Ravikant put it in these words:

“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want”

Making this type of contract is not a bad strategy per se, and it can work for reaching difficult, long-term goals.

But here’s problem number 1: Many or most of us won’t achieve the things we desire, which in turn can make us frustrated and unhappy as well. We’re told to set ambitious goals to motivate us, but forget the downside of doing so: There’s a very high chance that we won’t reach that goal, because hard things are hard, and we might carry that failure with us, and maybe we won’t even try next time.

And problem number 2, which is even more important: Even if you reach your desired outcome, you won’t feel that much better than before.

Usually, the reason we’re willing to sacrifice our happiness (and possibly our hobbies, health and relationships) for months and years is that we believe reaching our goal will be worth it, that it will make our lives significantly better, easier and happier.

We have the blueprint from Hollywood and Disney movies: you have to suffer and do something difficult and heroic, then you’ll have won and get the girl of your dreams and live happily ever after.

But here’s the reality: Once we reached what we desired, we won’t reach some blissful beautiful state.

Here’s what Naval has to say:
“There’s a delusion that there’s something out there that will make us happy and fulfilled forever.
That is a complete delusion … No one thing seems to do that.
If obtaining things were to make us happy, the cavemen would be miserable and we’d be incredibly happy right now. But the opposite seems to be the case”

Here’s my verdict: It’s important to have a vision of how you want your life to look like. Especially if your vision is relatively reasonable, like finding a job, a partner and enjoying some hobbies (but even those are not guaranteed).

But the more ambitious your goals and desires are, the more likely they will come to bite you in the ass (because you’ll probably fail, and even in the unlikely event of you succeeding, it won’t make you much happier than before).

All that being said, I still think we should dream big and try ambitious things, just because it’s interesting and challenging. Just be realistic about the price you’re going to pay: it’s probably not going to work out as you hoped it would, it’s probably going to be much harder and more annoying than expected, and even succeeding won’t make you much happier.

If we accept this, we can still set out to do big things, and I think we’ll be less miserable while doing it (and more likely to succeed).

In any case, I’ll leave you with this quote from Naval:
“Happiness is returning to that state where (we realize that) nothing is missing in this moment”

😴 What might help you find calm

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💎 Hidden Gem: James Matthew makes beautiful videos, such as this inaudible whispering ASMR. Loved it!

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