What you really, really want

car dealership

Dwight Moody once said, “Let our thoughts rest upon Him; and He will lift us above ourselves, and above the world, and satisfy our utmost desires.” Our own wants and desires aren’t always our best guide. We need God to transform our desires and help us to see what it is that we truly want. What we want at any given moment can be quite misleading.

“Miswanting” is the label Gilbert and Wilson assign to forecasting errors about our future affective states. In other words, we are not great at predicting how something we really want now will make us feel one we get it (and have had it for a while). I’ve definitely made my fair share of decisions that could be classified as “miswanting.”

For example, when I purchased my two-door, manual transmission Hyundai Elantra, I was trying to avoid spending a lot of money on a car. At the time, I was attempting to avoid the “bad feelings” associated with spending money on a nicer car. Now, when I squeeze myself into my little, baby blue car, I don’t remember the good feeling I had when I first bought the car for a low, low price … all I’m thinking about is the actual experience of driving it (which isn’t horrible … but isn’t exactly great either).

Miswanting is a useful concept to keep in mind when deciding whether we really want something or not. It is relatively easy for us to get too consumed with our desires in the moment without taking the time to consider whether (a) our desires are more-than fleeting or (b) how we will experience the thing we want once we get it.

The point of Gilbert and Wilson’s research is that we aren’t particularly good at predicting how getting what we want now will make us feel in the future. So how can we avoid miswanting? I’m not sure I have it mastered, but I do have a few thoughts.

Avoiding Miswanting

Seek to find and be driven by your deepest human desire

Ultimately, the void we need to fill … that deep yearning and desire for something we lack … can only be filled by Christ. Once we recognize that nothing else we could ever want will fulfill us like being a part of God’s people and participating in the mission of God, making decisions about the other things we may want can only become clearer … not perfectly clear … but clearer. Paul addresses this matter in Philippians 4, noting that he “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (4:12). He learned to be content in all circumstances knowing that he could do all that was required of him through the One who strengthens him (i.e., Christ).

Let the desires sit for a while

We live in a world where finding and getting what we want is relatively simple. The ease with which we can get what we want makes it less likely that we will even take the time to make a prediction about how getting what we want will make us feel. Avoiding the temptation to navigate to Amazon.com and have the object of your desire shipped overnight might help us to consider whether getting what we want is really that important. Exercise some discipline and wait to purchase whatever it is you want in the moment … see if the desire fades.

Give some thought to how you will experience what you want in six months

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow offers a helpful comparison between buying a new car and joining a social club. At some point the novelty of the new car will be gone and the “new car” will turn into the “no-longer-new-car.” However, joining a social club provides ongoing relational benefits that have the potential to keep the experience fresh. Identifying the tangible ways in which acting on a desire can improve our well being longer-term may help us make better decisions in the moment.

Don’t be naïve … consider the downside

In Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath suggest that one of the ways to make better decisions is to “reality-test your assumptions.” We may look at something we desire (or something we desire to avoid) and think of all the reasons it would be great to get it (or avoid it). The problem is that listing 100 reasons why I want would improve my well-being, doesn’t mean much if I don’t also list the reasons it would be detrimental to my well-being. I could be fooling myself about how “great” this or that will be if I’m not also evaluating the downside of getting what I want. Even if the good reasons outweigh the bad, thinking through the bad resets our expectations and brings some sobriety to our decision-making.

Getting what we want is not the point of life … especially when it seems pretty clear that we often have misdirected desires that we’d be better off ignoring than pursuing. In reality, we live in a world that is not as it should be … we are not as we should be. We have biases, blind spots, prejudices, and a host of other issues that should give us pause before we begin chasing after what we think will fulfill our needs. Our fundamental need is to have our desires directed rightly. To experience such a redirection, we need to recognize that there is a wise, benevolent God who is going to re-make the world, who has perspective we don’t, who has our good in mind, and who has provided a means for us to know him though our acceptance of Jesus as the Christ.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Photo credit: Sourav Mishra