Why wanting less doesn’t always mean more joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

In CJ Hauser’s essay The Crane Wife, she tells the story of how, days after breaking off her engagement with a man who cheated on her, she went on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas. This excerpt is one that plays over and over in my head:

On our way out of the reserve, we often saw wild pigs, black and pink bristly mothers and their young, scurrying through the scrub and rolling in the dust among the cacti. In the van each night, we made bets on how many wild pigs we might see on our drive home.

One night, halfway through the trip, I bet reasonably. We usually saw four, I hoped for five, but I bet three because I figured it was the most that could be expected.

Warren bet wildly, optimistically, too high.

“Twenty pigs,” Warren said. He rested his interlaced fingers on his soft chest.

We laughed and slapped the vinyl van seats at this boldness.

But the thing is, we saw twenty pigs on the drive home that night. And in the thick of our celebrations, I realized how sad it was that I’d bet so low. That I wouldn’t even let myself imagine receiving as much as I’d hoped for.

How many times do we bet low in life because it’s all we think we can have? All we think we deserve?

In hard times, in bad relationships, in seasons of lack — we shrink our desires so as to make them fit within the sphere of plausible outcomes. We tell ourselves we don’t really need weekends off, or to be told I love you. After awhile, we almost believe it.

When we come out of survival mode, we often can’t shake the sense of constraint. We’ve gotten so good at shutting down our wants, we don’t know how to want anymore.

Until someone like Warren, a wildly optimistic gambler, shows us what’s possible.

You can’t win if you don’t play.

Letting yourself want is scary because it means you might end up disappointed. But it also can be the very thing that stops you from just passively accepting what’s been given to you and inspires you to move toward joy.

Your wants may be bigger than you realized. I want a vacation home. I want to spend a year traveling. Or they may be small. I want to see my family more than once a year. I want to grow vegetables from seed. I want to live in a house where music is always playing.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that happiness is really about wanting less. That our natural state is dissatisfaction and we’ll always be in a state of over-consuming, goal-oriented pursuit, never able to enjoy anything unless we learn to control and tamp down our desires.

But I think the truth is more nuanced. It’s not that wanting is bad, but that so many of us live our lives trying to satisfy the wants of others without really understanding what we want for ourselves. We pursue accolades to satisfy the wants of our parents, we acquire material things that to fix what marketers have told us is “wanting” in us.

Maybe we settle for a new shirt because we don’t believe that true belonging is possible for us. Maybe we accept the gratification of a high-status job because we learned approval is more attainable than unconditional love.

What if you learned to want better? What cheap substitute would you let go of if you could have what you really desire?

February 8th, 2023


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    Discussion (12 Comments)

  1. Anna on February 8, 2023

    Beautiful piece — thank you. 

  2. Heidi Fiedler on February 8, 2023

    Please keep talking about this, Ingrid. These invitations to acknowledge your desires, even when it feels impossible to fulfill them, is really helpful.

  3. Kristin on February 9, 2023

    You always seem to hit the nail on the head. I’ve been wanting less since the pandemic began, and now I realize how much I’ve cheated myself of joy as well.

  4. Monica on February 9, 2023

    While reatino this post, I realized tratti this is what happened to me. I always beat less because I’m afraid to lose, to feel a loser, to say “you see?? It is not worth aiming high”. Please keep on digging in this negative feeling and howc to defeat ot. Thanks

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on February 9, 2023

      Thanks, Monica. I know this feeling well and will keep writing about it

  5. Audrey on February 9, 2023

    Love this idea of wanting better, not more or less, it frames it up in a way that doesn’t make you feel wrong or right           ( shame) , trying to satisfy the wants of others over what we want. It also reminds me of  something I read by Chopra where he said we consume so many things to distract or deter ourselves when we should pause as ask “ what are we truly hungry for?”  I. E love, affection, belonging etc. 

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on February 9, 2023

      Ooooh I love that question. What are you truly hungry for? So good

  6. April on February 9, 2023

    I love how you wrote this and think it is so true. I want something deeply that is impossible to have. I’ve grieved but found I still want what I want. I’ve found that by accepting the wanting – knowing it is wholesome and good to want want what I want – there is some comfort, some true, connected feeling of integrity and security just feeling that want – even in a case where I really can’t have it.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on February 9, 2023

      Thank you, April. I’m so sorry for this “loss” – the kind that many people may never know you carry. You’re right that it needs to be grieved. In fact, I do an exercise on this in the How to Dream workshop – because if we don’t grieve, it can hold us back from connecting with our desires for the things we could have in the future. Wishing you comfort and joy.

  7. Shawn on February 9, 2023

    Thank you for this. I did the exercise and then read the article. You’re so right, it’s about meeting our own needs (and what a guilt sandwich society can turn that into!) But, no, it’s our own signature, quirky, unique “asks” that are actually just the fuel to what we bring to this life. 

  8. Alex on February 9, 2023

    Love how you ended this with a question. Great post!

  9. Steph on February 13, 2023

    Loved it. I’ve thought about this so much. I used to be one to restrain my wants in order to be fulfilled and it just left me stuck in a place that didn’t made me happy. Thank you for this. It truly resonated with what I need right now in a simple yet loving way.


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