Understanding and Controlling Desire

We all know that desire is the longing for a person, thing or state of mind – and most of us call it an emotion, although psychologists tend to differentiate it from emotion, asserting that it arises from bodily structures or functions. However, we don’t need to get into technicalities in definitional terms to understand desire and what it does.

It is a driver, a prod to action. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes asserted that it was the fundamental motivator of all human action. He was likely correct, although we often do things we wish we didn’t have to. Many of us would like to retire, for example, or quit our jobs, but we can’t do so because we have financial commitments. We wish to eat, maintain a roof over our heads and clothe our bodies.

Some would say that we still desire to work then. Our desire for the rewards we receive from working (Money) exceeds our desire not to work. That’s the thing about desire. It comes in many shades, hits us at many levels, propels us to act or not to act in accord with the desire that exerts the greatest pressure on us at any given time.

It’s impossible, in fact, to avoid desire. Every action, every thought, is influenced by competing desires. For some of us, the desire to eat donuts and cake at every meal competes with the desire to be slim or at least not obese. For others, the desire to look stylish competes with the desire to avoid going into debt over clothes.

But it’s not as simple as that. There are never (or at least rarely) only two competing desires at play in our minds. More often, there are several dozen, many of them struggling to assert themselves from the depths of the subconscious. We tend to overlook them while we’re focused on the stronger desires that have breached the surface.

So what? Why do we care about this?

Because understanding desire is the first step toward controlling it, and controlling desire is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving success. The ability to delay gratification is vital to success in any field, from athletics to the arts to business – one must always pay one’s dues to reach the top. And controlling desire is what delayed gratification is all about.

The big question is, how do we do that? And unfortunately, the answer is that the ability to delay gratification is largely acquired early in life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hone whatever skills we happen to possess as we age. It takes measured logic – the ability to step back from the impulsive act – to accomplish this task.

Whenever we desire something and reach out to grab it (literally or figuratively), we need to ask ourselves if this is really what’s best for us. Do I really need that candy bar? Should I really quit my job because my boss is a jerk? Should I really post that picture on Instagram or Facebook?

Why do I need this NOW? Why can’t I wait a day or two to think about the consequences, the ramifications of my actions?

Often, by the exercise of self-discipline, those desires will fade and longer-term benefits will become possible. This is not always true, of course, but it often is.

So think before grasping at what you want in the immediate now and consider whether you might be better off later if you wait. You may find that your desire is not as strong as you thought it was. You may be able to control it and in the process gain greater success in the future.

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