Wanting isn’t liking

We are creatures of desire. Wanting sets the world in motion. This doesn’t trouble us, because we assume what we want is what we like, and indeed that we want it because we’ll like it – it’ll provide happiness, pleasure, meaning or other benefits. The words wanting and liking are often used interchangeably. That liking creates wanting is so obvious to most people that they never think to question it. But it’s not true.

Our wants and likes were shaped our ancestors. Desires and preferences that favored survival and mating gradually spread. But since wanting leads to action while liking leads to inaction, we’re wired for continual desire but fleeting contentment; for the pursuit of happiness but not its attainment.

We’re also wired to not notice the distinction. We inherited this from our ancestors, because those who repeatedly fell for the trick kept striving, climbing, and collecting, and they outcompeted any rivals who didn’t. So we want something, buy it or achieve it, like it less than we expected, and then want more of it. Money, status, promotions, shopping, nicotine…

Why does the distinction matter? Because we’re driven by our desires, but should be driven by our preferences. Because there are things you don’t naturally desire but would enjoy or benefit from. Because marketing manufactures wants and discourages liking; a permanently contented customer is a one-time buyer. Because being preoccupied with wanting interferes with liking; it’s hard to fully enjoy the present when you’re focused on changing it into something else.

So what should you do? Bring awareness to the differences between wanting and liking. See how each feels in your body: does wanting feel closed, tense, constricted? does liking feel open, relaxed, freeing? Add accountability to your desires by improving your affective forecasting skills: notice what you want, see how much you like it when you get it, and use that knowledge to choose what’s worth wanting. Do what you can to like more and want less, or even to consciously choose what you want. Do things you don’t desire but will enjoy or benefit from. And live more in the present than the future, favoring process over outcome and journey over destination.

Today's Activity

  • Think back ten years: what did you want then? Did you get them? Did they give you the lasting happiness or meaning you expected? What things do you want now? Are they more likely to give you lasting happiness or meaning?
  • Think of some things you don’t want to do but feel you should. Commit to doing each this week for at least ten minutes. Once you start, you might find that you like doing them or having done them.