Why wanting less doesn’t always mean more joy
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?