What you want is not the same as what you desire. What you want is also not the same as what you -need- to get what you want.
There is a very common problem that many people do not realise they have, which is that they don’t really know what they want. This ultimately comes from the fact that they don’t distinguish “who” wants it. This might seem obvious; if -they- want something, then it seems clear who wants it. In reality there are at least two “who’s” in this situation. To clarify this, consider a person who wants two things:
- True Love
To expand on this, let’s say they recently broke up with someone, so they are depressed and wondering if they will ever find true love. As a result, they want alcohol to help them get over the depression.
Need vs Want
First let’s focus on number two: alcohol. They don’t really want alcohol. Few people actually want alcohol because it tastes disgusting. The reason they think they want alcohol is because what they actually want is to not feel the pain from their breakup. Alcohol is merely the tool that allows them to do this, in reality alcohol is what they -need- to get what they -want-. While many people idolise alcohol as a magic remedy and way to live life, this is likely either said as a joke, or as fanaticism.
Another example is when you want to get a haircut, you don’t -want- scissors, because it doesn’t really matter what the tool is. If a laser could do the same job without any disadvantages then you would neither want nor need scissors.
To prove this by contradiction, consider someone who actually wants scissors, or alcohol. If that is all they want, then they don’t want a haircut or to get inebriated, t which is perfectly fine, but very strange. On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider if you wanted a haircut, but the only way to get one was to also get your head cut. One could not rationally say that someone who wants to get their hair cut also wants to get their head cut, because that doesn’t make any sense.
That still does not answer “who” wants alcohol. There are many ways to look at the human mind and brain, but they all likely have one thing in common: the distinction between the conscious mind and the not-conscious mind. Regardless of whether the second is called the subconscious, the unconscious, sex drive, pleasure center, or otherwise, there is a part of your mind that does things without asking you. This is the part of the brain that wants alcohol.
This part of the brain sees pain as something that is hurting the body (or mind in this case) and compels you to stop it. This is what keeps animals alive, since pain hurts, and pain is usually caused by damage to the body, animals that avoid pain also avoid damage, which keeps them alive. Unfortunately this part of the brain forces you to do this without consulting your conscious mind, so avoiding pain is more of a forced instinct than a reliably good idea.
When you do what your unconscious wants, you’re giving in to what “someone else” is telling you. Drinking alcohol will make it feel better, but the reason you feel so bad in the first place is originally because of the breakup, but that doesn’t mean you should want to drink to forget it. That would be unhealthy, in both the short term and long term. A rational person would grieve and come to peace with it and then move on, because that permanently solves their pain. Alcohol does not even temporarily solve it, it just avoids it, but the unconscious mind doesn’t know that and it does not care, it just wants to feel good right now because it doesn’t think ahead. It does this because it’s a pre-programmed machine that animals are born with, it forces you to follow rules that were created through many years of evolution. If you let your unconscious trick you into thinking that you want what it wants, then you will just be reacting to emotions and not doing what is best for yourself in the future. You would simply be following arbitrary rules that might get you what you want, or it might not.
Now let’s focus on number one: true love. Putting aside the debate of whether true love is real or an instinct, for the sake of argument let’s say it’s not an impulse for reproduction. Let’s say it is a Romantic, deep, meaningful thing to want and that not everyone wants it. If that is the case, then even though you might not choose to love, love is something you aspire to, something you have to choose to follow. Or, if that is not good enough for you, let’s use the example of becoming a doctor.
Whether what you want is true love or to be a doctor, these (should) be things that you consciously want. I do not choose to love nor do I choose that I want to help people as a doctor, but at the same time I do choose to want them because I agree with these things, and because the idea of true love or of helping people didn’t come from someone else (the unconscious), it is truly -I- who wants it.
These kind of goals are the type that make you truly happy. Desires satisfy a craving and release chemicals in your brain to make you feel good, but that is nothing close to the feeling of attaining your goals. An example of this is the instinct to survive, one would feel bad and scared when risking their life, but often they do so for a greater good, such as saving the lives of others. If instead of denying their instincts, everyone chose to save their own lives, then there would be many more lives lost since police, firefighters, medics and soldiers would not try to save others if it involved any risk to them. While risking one’s life is never something that should have to happen, sometimes it is unavoidable, and it is then that the difference instinct and desire, and conscious goals and willpower becomes vital.
Why this matters
You might wonder why this is important. These might simply seem like labels to describe different types of wanting, but they have vitally important practical applications.
Necessity is Relative
The distinction between what you want and what you need comes from the fact that necessity is relative. People use the word “need” in a seemingly objective way, however it is almost always accompanied by needing something -for- something else. People need air, but they only need it in order to live. If someone did not want to live then they would no longer need air. A less extreme example is for everyday life goals such as when a student needs to take a certain class. They only need the class if they want a degree that requires that class, or if they want to graduate at all. As soon as the student decides that they don’t want to graduate, they no longer need that class. As such, what someone needs is almost always relative to what they want.
This is why it is important to distinguish what you really want from what you need to get it. When one confuses the two, they act irrationally and forget what they really want, doing things that seem “necessary” for a goal they no longer want. If someone sees people in poverty because of their government and decides to become a politician to help people, they should remember their reason for doing that. If they do not, it is easy to let the many requirements of getting elected become their main focus instead. Often politicians have to make compromises on things they believe in order to get the help they need for their goals or get the public to vote for them. To help the poor they have to first be elected, and therefore need money to campaign, and appear to support things that the public want. That might require the politician to say they will focus on goals that are more popular to voters than eliminating poverty. It might require them to lay off many people in order to save money for a bigger project to help the poor, but in the process the politician has increased poverty. During all this it is easy for the politician to focus exclusively on getting to and staying in power because that is needed to help the poor, and justify it by telling themselves that these compromises are only short term and are needed to help more people in the long term. It is then easy to stop worrying and even forget about the long term goals and think that the short term goals are “necessary”, and after pursuing these intermediary goals for so long it is easy to confuse these needs with what you truly want.
Desires Often Hurt You and What You Want
An extremely common issue in the world is that of being lazy. Most everyone has been lazy at some time or another, and it usually doesn’t matter. However, consider a lazy student who decides to play games instead of doing homework. It is easy to delay doing work and instead want to have fun, especially after a long day. Delaying work can often lead to someone not having enough time to finish it, or even telling themselves that missing a single homework assignment will barely affect their overall grades, and deciding not to do it at all. Laziness further strengthens itself because once you have missed that first assignment you feel more comfortable not turning in work in the future. This can lead to one justifying getting poor grades in a class because it won’t affect their overall scores much, and then further to them not worrying about their overall scores. This can lead to them not being able to get into a university or job because they were not thinking ahead, and instead simply did what made them feel good in the present. This can permanently damage their ability to get a job they want or have the future they want, all because they allowed the lazy part of their brain tell them what to do.
Even if your desires do not seem like they will harm you in the long term, one should carefully decide if what they desire is something they actually want at all, or if it is just a completely arbitrary impulse to satisfy the animal compelling them to do something.
Only by knowing what you truly want will you be able to live truly happily.