When Ambition Makes You Miserable
The Difference Between Wanting and Liking
Have you ever turned 30, planned a too-big birthday dinner at a too-busy restaurant in the middle of a too-cold winter, then ended up crying outside of said restaurant at approximately 1:15am?
But it’s okay — it was one of those 2 minute frustration cries that my best friend assured me, “Absolutely, 100%, no one even saw and you look really pretty even though you were just crying.”
Why was I upset? Because I somehow forgot to do one of the easiest ‘wellness tricks’ around — to distinguish between wanting and liking. I liked the idea of a big party, but I wanted something much smaller, more intimate, incredibly simple. Obviously the pair aren’t mutually exclusive, but strangely enough, not everything we like we actually want.
What happens when we want everything we like? We minimize our gratitude, take ourselves out of the present moment and tend to experience some pretty unnecessary levels of stress.
In other words, thinking about all the things that will make us happy often makes us miserable.
How does this happen?
What starts as a perfectly naturally evolutionary impulse to avail ourselves to resources becomes grossly inflated by a dangerous mix of consumer culture + a lack of gratitude about what we already have.
The more we think we want, the more prescriptive the expectations we carry for the present moment become, and the more easy it is to become disappointed by each moment we experience (otherwise known as life).
It’s why lottery winners are often so miserable, and why a growing mound of research studies conclude there’s little correlation between the wealthiest countries and the happiest citizens. It’s why my high-expectations-ridden 30th birthday party was such a bust.
The good news is that the ambition trap can be avoided, you just have to keep in mind the difference between liking and wanting.
To distinguish the two in our culture of more, conceptualize wanting as an expression of a deeply powerful urge. Ideally, wanting comes from the heart. When you really, truly want something, it’s a real challenge to find a replacement for that something.
Liking, on the other hand, can be thought of as coming from the mind. Liking something doesn’t feel as deeply ingrained as wanting, and what you like today can easily change tomorrow. What’s interesting about liking something is that it doesn’t naturally carry the desire for acquisition, we’ve just been trained to respond to the experience of liking something with the emotional reflex of wanting it. The reality is, the connection between immediately wanting whatever you like is actually learned.
So can ambition and wanting more ever be healthy?
Yes! Healthy ambition just requires raising cognitive awareness between expressing a desire for something, and expressing discontent with what you already have. Ultimately, it’s blurring this fine line that causes so much unhappiness.
The more self-aware you are, the easier it’ll be for you to distinguish between what you like, and what you actually want to acquire.
But how do we make that distinction? As human beings, we’re so used to wanting more as a default mode. More food, more money, more friends, more sex, more stuff, more time, more attention. So how do we start wanting less?
Start increasing your self-awareness by identifying all the things you already have that you want. When you feel more gratitude for what you have, you tend to stop automatically assuming you want more. Your inner dialogue unconsciously shifts to, “Why would I want more when I already have so much?”
Next, increase your awareness about how many things you actually like without wanting, this disrupts the aforementioned learned emotional reflex of, “I like this, so I want this.” Instead of acquisition, get your thoughts moving in the direction of appreciation.
For example, if you’re in your favorite restaurant, do you like the tiles on the bathroom wall, the crisp feel of the white tablecloth, the extensive bar, the delicious menu options, the wonderful combination of music + the din of your fellow diners’ chatter? Sure, what’s not to like right? But do you actually want your bathroom re-tiled to copy that look? Do you want everything on the menu? (If you’re reading this when you’re hungry, your answer doesn’t count!) Do you want to take the white tablecloths home with you?
Probably not, because when we really think about it, we actually don’t want so many of the things we like. What we truly want has so much less to do with acquisition and so much more to do with gratitude.
Examine your life and hold awareness of your answers to these three questions:
- What do I want that I already have?
- What do I just like?
- What else, if anything, do I truly want?
Your answers just might surprise you.