Opinion philosophy

What Do You Really Want?

What Do You Really Want? 1
Dante’s Inferno

There is an interesting recording of Alan Watts where he discusses three ideas that touch on the question: What do you really want?

Of course, there is nothing original about the question itself. But there was wisdom in the way Alan Watts addressed it. He talked about several concepts worth reflecting on. The first is chasing after money, that is to live to make money so that one may continue living miserably. The second is chasing after pleasure – knowing that at the bottom of pleasure there is pain. And the third is about the notion of power, and whether it is wise to seek it.

Financing Your Misery

It is a truism that money improves people’s lives, otherwise, people would not be after it. Of course, I could say that the journey matters, and undoubtedly, you have heard the words of many others including bloggers and writers who may tell you that it is about the journey rather than the destination. But you may explain this reasoning away by saying that they are merely confirming their own viewpoints. Afterall, if they did not believe that the journey was more important, why would they be writing? And what value would their advice have to your life if they are merely saying these words to make themselves feel better?

And of course, these are fair criticisms – it is not obvious that you should listen to anyone who tries to tell you how to live. But you must also be mindful of the change that the pursuit of money will bring. If you choose to go after money, you will go into a repetitive pattern of behavior, and this will influence who you will become. Your personality, your values, and your interests will change. People think that if they work hard and save in their twenties, then at thirty or forty, they will finally enjoy life, but that is not the case, because surely, they will not be the same people at thirty or forty. They will not enjoy the same things, they will not have the same priorities, or the same ideas. They may probably develop into people who become workaholics, who have forgotten how to enjoy things.

Your work will mould you into something that is unfamiliar to you now. So, when you make a decision, you must at least understand that you do not know its future ramifications, and you are better off not pretending that you do.

In economics, there is a concept called opportunity cost, it is what you forego for the attainment of something. There is an opportunity cost associated with your decision to pursue this career or that, and you will not understand the full extent of this opportunity cost until you have lived the decision out. In other words, you will always have imperfect information. No matter what path you take, you will never know what could have been otherwise. You will always be oblivious to the counter-factual.

That is why I believe that it is important, if you want to avoid regret later in life, to constantly ask yourself if the path you are pursuing is what you truly want.

People usually fear change, but they shouldn’t. They should fear repetition. Change is instantly identifiable – when something in your life is different, you can clearly see it, and then you can choose to react in whatever way you deem fit. If you get fired or end a relationship with someone close, you will have a new reality to adapt to, and this will be difficult, but at least you are under no illusions.

But with stability and repetition, you are lulled into a zombie-like mode of existence where your yesterday looks very much like your today. And when you live out this pattern, time speeds up, you are trapped into a repetitive cycle. Now, this is good if you want to avoid constant existential dread. Having a routine where you don’t have to think so much about what you ought to do can make your daily experiences less painful. You will have more focus and determination and confidence, and undoubtedly, these are all good things, but you must acknowledge that you are wilfully blind in these situations.

When the cycle plays out, you as the conscious agent do not have an active role to play, you must merely follow orders from your past self. It is your schedule that will dictate the course of your day, and not your own ideas or inclinations or curiosity. And if you live this way for long enough, you lose touch with the self-determining conscious agent within you.

It is not that you should live each day as if it was unrelated to the previous one, but you should consistently have breaks in your routine, where you gain perspective and question where you are going, and whether it is really where you want to go. If you feel trapped, that you want to break things, that you dread work, that you wish you could be somewhere else, then stop. If you are enjoying yourself, if you feel like you are making progress, that you are entering flow states regularly, keep going.

But all the while, practice the art of introspection daily. As you become more attuned to your feelings, you will instantly be able to recognize any feelings of dissatisfaction. This is when you must pause and ask yourself “Why?” You will be surprised, but you often already know the answer. Your subconscious has it packaged and stored for you, and now the package is waiting for your conscious self to unwrap it.

Notice that there is a danger, like in everything, to be too extreme in either direction. The monks are too extreme perhaps in their commitment to opening each package, to being far too introspective. While the wall-street banker is the opposite, he has no idea what is going on inside, he is an expert in drowning out the noise because he has systematically indoctrinated himself to become a money-making machine.

The second piece of wisdom that is worth thinking about comes from the Alan’s idea about pleasure.

The Bottom of Pleasure is Pain

This reminded me of the 7 deadly sins that Dante wrote about.

The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso)What Do You Really Want? 2

What is on the other side of pleasure?

In other words, what happens when you have exhausted the reservoirs of pleasure, when you have licked the honey jar clean?

I think fundamentally, Alan Watts is right that at the bottom of pleasure is pain, and I say this because his observation is consistent with how humans behave. Let us take three examples: food, sex, and drugs as forms of pleasure. If you abuse any of these, you will start to inflict harm on yourself. And yet so many of us live in a way where the relentless pursuit of pleasure seems like the only way forward.

Granted, you can make a powerful argument here. Life is short and often painful. The pursuit of pleasure is the only way you can directly counter the tragedy of life. It is only by eating the best food and taking the best drugs that you can balance the scales. And if it were true, that each time you pursue one of these pleasures, you derive the same amount of satisfaction, it would be impossible to refute the argument.

But again, we can turn to economics for another useful idea: marginal utility. The marginal utility defines how much pleasure you can from doing something one more time. So, let’s say I buy ice cream, I may derive 10 utils (pleasure points), but if I have another one right after, I get around 6 utils. And if I have a third, I would get -3 utils because now my stomach hurts.

The marginal utility of any activity decreases as you do it more often. That is why, people get bored of good, healthy, nutritious food if they are greedy. If they demand utils, they won’t be content with having a balanced meal because the flavors are not exciting enough. They will want dessert. And then they will want a sugary snack a few hours later. We are mostly driven by greed, but as Stephan Fry remarked, greed can sometimes be good.

Greed can be good when it is aimed at the right things. But curiously, none of these things are easy pleasures. Being greedy for knowledge or good health will not harm you, because any excess in these domains will only bring more benefit or utils. Why is that?

If you notice, it is possible to derive pleasure from knowledge, many people truly enjoy reading books. From good physical fitness, many people enjoy sports or going to the gym. But these pleasures have a natural limit. It is as if you cannot exhaust them even if you tried, because they are time consuming and highly demanding. It is impossible to go the gym for more than a handful of hours per day, your muscles will shut down. It is impossible to do more than a few hours of reading per day, your brain will at some point stop processing information.

There is a natural cap to the amount of pleasure you can derive from these activities. But this is not so for the easy pleasures of life. It is easy to eat chocolate bars. If you train yourself for long enough, you can manage to eat quite a lot without your body informing you that it cannot take it anymore. The feedback loop is not as robust. It is the same with drugs and alcohol. It is possible to be drunk and still drink. In fact, it is possible to throw up and then drink again after that. When there is no natural cap to an activity, people will abuse it – until it becomes painful.

The Allure of Power

Everyone talks about getting power, but why do you want power? If you got it, what would you do with it? If you wanted it because then you’d be able to save people, then first you should ask yourself, do you know how to save people? Do you even know what people want?

Perhaps what people really want is the ability to survive, to enjoy what they do, and to have security. But what is all this talk about influencing others? What’s the point of it?

But there is an even more important question to ask: do you even know what you want?

If you don’t know what you want, there can be several reasons for this. One, you might already have it! Two, you may be deceiving yourself into wanting things that you don’t really want or drowning out the sincere voice within you that does know what you want. Three, you may not want anything at all!

Let’s look at one and three. You are told that you need to chase after something, that the meaning of life can only be experienced in that pursuit, but what if that was an illusion? What if you already have everything you want because all you want is to live peacefully with enough food and water to survive and a few different entertainment options, and spending time with the people you care about.

The pernicious option is two, self-deception. It is in fooling yourself into wanting what you don’t really want, or not allowing yourself to want what you do want. In both cases, you are tyrannizing yourself. I think the chief aim of every person should not be to find their passion or their calling. Sometimes such a thing does not exist – it doesn’t have to exist for everyone. But each person should recognize when they are deceiving themselves. It would truly be a waste to spend your entire life chasing after something you never really wanted in the first place – a true tragedy.

And if there was something that you wanted to do but that you were too scared to do, for whatever reason, then this is another crime against yourself because you are not experiencing your full potential. There is something that you can become that will make you feel more complete and more integrated. To lie to yourself, to deprive yourself from pursuing this path is another tragedy.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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