You Don’t Know What You Want

Because none of us actually do


Most negative emotions are caused by our demand for life to have meaning. And moreover, that it be subjectively meaningful— i.e., meaning we choose.

The problem is that the human brain is a “meaning machine,” and it will make sense out of literally anything put it front of it.

Earlier today I watched psychologist Petter Johansson TED talk on “choice blindness”— a phenomenon where we convince ourselves something is what we want, even when it isn’t.

Johansson poses the question, “do you really know why you do what you do?” And even as we all will swear up and down “yes” in response, he proves we rarely do.

He describes two experiments he ran in which participants were asked to rate their preferences between two things, and then asked to explain why.

Seems simple enough.

Except that as part of the experiment, he reversed their preference, presenting the opposite selection back as though they’d chosen it, without telling them. And the crazy thing was: when asked, they’d still “explain” why it was their preference.

In other words: we have no idea what we want. We are inherently fickle and easily swayed.

So when it comes to “looking inside ourselves” for an answer, the reality is: that answer will never be there.

“A lot of what we call self-knowledge is actually self-interpretation. So I see myself make a choice, and then when I’m asked why, I just try to make as much sense of it as possible when I make an explanation. But we do this so quickly and with such ease that we think we actually know the answer.”

And the reverse side of this coin? Confirmation bias, of course: once we make a selection, we’ll do most anything to rationalize it. Which is why action will always trump analysis, even — especially — when it comes to “figuring out what we want.”

The other point? Quit bundling “happiness” and “the thing.” If you want happiness, you could have it literally right now. If you want “the thing” — whatever “the thing” is — quit making it into “EVERYTHING.” People who have the thing didn’t get it by putting it on a pedestal.

Let the thing be the thing; let your happiness be your happiness. Done.

The problem with lofty, abstract expectations (as opposed to the real and actual here-and-now) is that when the universe fails to deliver on the future we had in our heads (or, as we prefer to frame it, when “we fail to work hard enough to make it happen”), it causes feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, and anger. And then it perpetuates, and becomes a cycle.

And then we start to look for help from others. On how to do things like look “harder inside ourselves.”

Here’s the thing about self help writers (and writers in general — and actually, everyone): they don’t actually care about you. And they’re insecure too, otherwise they’d be writing more honestly, not glorifying their failures just to highlight how far they’ve come, or including just enough personal detail (marital status, kids, hobbies) to assure you that they’re a real person.

And all of this is for one core reason: to win your allegiance, to “build an audience,” to sell books, whatever.

“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but what do I care, if they’re helping me?”

And yeah, sure, that would be true — if they were. But they’re not.

We all think that our big self-help breakthrough is just around the corner, that the next article or the next book or the next Youtube video will hold the key. Or maybe if we just keep reading and listening more, it will eventually compound itself in our brains and spark the success we’re looking for? Or maybe we saw some impact, and now we’re just in an ever-dogged pursuit of optimization?

Whatever the case, the point is clear: after all these articles and books and videos, if they were making a different, they would have by now. You’re not getting closer, you’re getting farther away. And you’re even farther “behind” than you’re fearing, because you’re looking in all the wrong places.

Happiness isn’t in finally achieving fantasies — and happiness clearly isn’t in the pursuit of them. What will bring us the satisfaction and satiation we crave is, rather, abandoning our fantasies and misconceptions of what will bring us happiness.

Because, as psychologist Petter Johansson pointed out:

We don’t know ourselves. At least not as well as we think we do.

And the “key to happiness” is not in “figuring out what we want” or holding out for some abstract “someday” when we’ll have it. It’s in admitting that the whole thing is inherently meaningless. So we might as well just enjoy, and be at peace.

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