What’s Revealed At the End When You Create the Roadmap to Happiness
A written exercise on how to grapple with my desires and what it means to live well
The idea of desires has always kind of troubled me.
Life has inevitable suffering, the cause of this suffering is desire, and to stop suffering, we must stop desiring. — First three of Buddhist Four Noble Truths
I had come to understand desire as a necessary evil, and that as long as I stood to want something, my life would be full of unhappiness. Even the desire to not suffer is a desire in itself, but if I wanted to live a good life, what should I do? To not want anything, ever?
It’s a question I’ve grappled with almost my entire life, and I’ve found that many religions and philosophers have developed different answers to how to approach it — but they all seem to agree, our desires play a big role in defining our good life, and we should reflect on them.
A reflective exercise to get to the root of my desires
A few weeks ago a professor of philosophy at my alma mater introduced me to the exercise he described as desire mapping. It comes in three parts, and is used as a tool to understand our desires better, and to understand them on our own, rather than to externally receive direction.
As someone who has always been intimidated by theoretical discussion and ancient philosophical texts, it was the perfect framework to start.
Part 1: Create an inventory of all of your desires
Write out all of your desires into a list, over three days. Anything goes, as long as you’ve felt a twinge of I want: big wants, little wants, impossible wants as well. Wish for a big career promotion, world peace, or wish for faster Wifi in the house — whatever crosses your mind.
It seemed to me like three days was a long time to write out desires, but I found that the time span was actually intentional, as I realized how often my mind flitted across twinges of desire — seeing an ad, an enviable Instagram post of someone’s weekend, or a movie scene that made my heart melt. I found I had more desires than I wished to admit, but this admittance too, was part of the process.
Part 2: Connect your desires
The second part is about connecting the desires. You should find that your wants categorize into means and ends. For example,
Pairs could also be made into chains of desires.
As I worked through my list and tried to make it into a map, I found some desires to be fundamentally conflicting. I would draw double-sided arrows in this case, to reflect one desire undermining the other, or making the other more difficult, if not straight impossible.
I also found that there were some desires I hadn’t considered before: why did I want to be a successful writer? Because I found it to be a good means to doing fulfilling work — this was a good assumption for me to know.
Some means would also branch off into multiple desires. Why did I want the new Kindle? Well, I wanted to read more books, reading more books means having more knowledge, meaning I could be better at my job. Or was it that I wanted to read more books because I found books made me more introspective, which would make me feel more comfortable in my own skin?
In this case, it would branch off.
Part 3: Connect all roads to eudaimonia
The last exercise is trying to connect the chains which stand alone and trying to converge them into the same end, to make a single web — and many people find that they can. Aristotle referred to this single end as eudaimonia or happiness, Plato referred to this ultimate end as ‘the Good’.
As I worked through my desires and reflected on what I wrote, I realized that I did something very strange with the activity. Although my desires were of things I wanted, if I were honest, I had also written down desires that I wished I didn’t want.
1. There are wants I desire, but do not want to desire.
I also found myself very doubtful of the chains I developed — would getting a promotion lead to confidence? Would greater confidence ultimately make me happy? I realized that I had no idea if this would be true, and it was just a guess.
2. There are means I desire for the sake of an end, but I am not sure this means will actually lead to the end I desire.
What’s revealed at the end of the roadmap
After I completed part three and stared at my now-complicated chart, it looked like a roadmap to happiness, but I became increasingly sure that I ended up with a web of desires full of inaccuracies. It was nothing but a mere guess. For there was no way for me to prove that any of these chains would lead to the ultimate end I was striving for.
What would more money do? More fame?
Would traveling make me happier? What would the opportunity cost be?
Why did I want things that I didn’t want to want?
I had no idea.
I thought that the revelation would disappoint me, but it turns out there is something amazingly comforting about it. For even if the things I desire never materialize, if I am fundamentally wrong about what I think is desirable, the power to be happy is still within my command.
Perhaps less suffering is not so much about never having desires, but finding peace in letting go of them.