Wanting something is easy; getting it is hard. You can be sitting on the couch, eating chips, drinking beer, watching reruns of your favorite sitcom, and you can want a million dollars. With the same effort, you can want a billion dollars. You can want world peace. You can want love. It’s easy to want. It’s difficult to get what you want. If you’re wise to this reality, you might get off the couch and try very hard for a very long time to get what you want. It’s quite likely that you still won’t get it. And even if you do, you might immediately start wanting something else. So most people will go through their lives wanting many more things than they actually get. Of all the experiences a person can have, wanting something and not getting it is perhaps the most common one. It happens all the time. It’s the default state of affairs.

Unfortunately for all us, there’s an issue with this state of affairs: namely, it sucks. The experience of wanting something and not getting it is fundamentally painful. When it happens to children, they cry with sounds and tears. When it happens to adults, they might cry without sounds or tears. How are we supposed to be happy if the most ubiquitous occurrence in our lives, wanting something and not getting it, makes us upset? It would seem we’re consigned to being upset all the time.

There are coping strategies, of course. We can want less. We can censor our desires, allowing ourselves to want only those things we’re pretty sure we can get. We can ignore or downplay the pain of not getting what we want. We can channel our frustration into trying again, or going after something else.

But even if we do all this, we’re still bound to want many things that we won’t end up getting, and we’re still bound to feel bad when that happens. Some things, we won’t even realize we want until we don’t get them. We can be totally unaware of a desire, but when it goes unfulfilled, the pain arrives, sure enough.

Much of the unexplained stress and sadness we experience in life can be understood in terms of wanting and not getting. We’re constantly experiencing the pain of wanting things and not getting them, and that pain is felt whether we need these things or not, and whether we even realize that this dynamic is occurring or not. Even if we’re highly effective and competent at pursuing what we want, not getting it remains the most likely thing that can happen, which is to say that distress is the most likely thing that can happen.

But there’s some good news in this. We can reduce our distress in any situation by noticing what we want. Having identified it, we can examine how not getting it is making us feel. Some questions to ask:

  1. What do I want in this situation?
  2. How much of my stress comes from actually needing that thing and being deprived of a necessity?
  3. How much of my stress comes from simply wanting that thing, and not getting what I happen to want?
  4. Does it make me feel better, even just a little bit, to remember that not getting what I want is the baseline, the most common state of affairs, the dial tone, the basic material of my existence, and everyone else’s?

Here’s an example from my own life. When I consume the news, I feel stressed out, and I have a mental model of why that’s the case. There are lots of negative things happening in the world, and those negative things affect me: they drag me down and make me feel pessimistic about society and its future. But there’s another way to see it. Any time I engage with a news story, I immediately start wanting something. I want the good guys to win. I want justice to prevail. I want people to do the “right” thing. I want a happy ending. And most of the time I don’t get what I want. Maybe 80% of news stories make me start wanting something very specific and then they tell me that the opposite of what I want is actually happening. Reading the news is basically an extended session of not getting what I want. “Rudi, you didn’t get this. And you didn’t get that. And you didn’t get that other thing that you wanted very badly.” And that denial is so alarming to me that I keep reading. It seems I’m fascinated by not getting what I want. The worse the news is, the more I’m glued to it.

Tuning out is a possibility, but if I’m still going to read the news, I can find some relief by reminding myself: “Rudi, you wanted something here. You wanted the good guys to win. You wanted it really badly. You’re upset because you didn’t get something you wanted.” This is not to encourage an apathetic attitude towards citizenship or to say that we should passively accept whatever happens in the world. It’s just a way to find some perspective on how stress arises and how it can be managed.

Not getting what we want generates a flurry of thought. One wonders: “Why didn’t I get it? What does this mean about me and my future? How can I change this? Why does this always happen to me? What could I have gotten if I had done something different?” We can easily get lost in a thicket of questions and speculations. Or we can simply say: “I wanted something and I didn’t get what I wanted. Now where do I go from here?”

Another example: I’m leaving on a trip and I’m feeling anxious about what could go wrong. Where is my stress coming from? My typical mental model of stress would say that the complexity of preparing for the trip is exhausting and the possible problems to anticipate are nerve-wracking. But there’s another way to see it. I want something here. I want certainty. I want the feeling of being fully prepared for travel. I want reassurance. I want omniscience. I want to know the future of the trip and be sure of what it holds. I’m not getting what I want. My stress is coming from not getting what I want. That’s to say, the stress is not a direct consequence of uncertainty itself; rather, it’s a consequence of wanting certainty and feeling like I’m failing to attain the thing I want. But once I notice this, I can step off the gas, so to speak; I can stop grasping so hard for certainty, I can stop wanting it so very much, and in turn my anxiety subsides. “Rudi, you wanted to see the future and feel sure of it. You’re not getting what you want. For the billionth time, you’re not getting something you want. Welcome to the dial tone of life.”

A third example: I meet a stranger and I feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable around them. Where is the discomfort coming from? My typical mental model says I’m an introvert and social situations are just sometimes stressful for people with my disposition. But there’s another way to think of it. I want something here. I want a good interaction with this stranger. I want to feel a sense of rapport. I want to feel confident in what I should say and how I should respond to the other person. I want to receive signals that show they appreciate me. I am not getting all those things. I am not getting what I want. Now I’m distracted by the frustration of not getting what I want, and that’s making it even harder to make small talk. But if I just notice how, right upon meeting this person, I started wanting lots and lots of things and not getting them, then the whole weight of my expectations seems rather hilarious to me, and I can relax.

A fourth example: I’m feeling aimless one day. I start working on one task, then another, but I can’t build momentum. I fear I’m squandering time. The whole day is starting to seem like a waste. My typical mental model is that I’m disorganized and I’m suffering from a lack of planning and prioritization. But there’s another way to think of it. I want something here. I want confidence. I want clarity. I want the reassurance that I’ve chosen the “right” things to work on and that I’ve found the “highest and best use” of my time. I want the joy of effortless productivity. I want to be in flow. Simply wanting these things is much the same as believing that they’re what I “should” have. But why should I have them? Noticing my expectations and assumptions points the way to relief.

No, I didn’t get the clarity of purpose that I wanted today. I didn’t get feeling of progress that I wanted today. I didn’t get the sense of achievement that I wanted today. This is just another case where I happen to want a bunch of things and I’m not getting everything I want. This framing gives me some separation from the things I want. It helps me detach from the conviction that whatever I want, I should have. It helps me move past the nagging feeling that there’s some injustice, disarray, or wrongness in not getting all these things, that there’s some deficiency or aberration in what I’m experiencing in the present moment. Actually, the present moment is reflective of what’s common and likely.

A fifth example: I’m waiting in the subway station for a train that’s delayed. As it finally pulls up to the platform, I see that it’s super-crowded, utterly brimming with people. My stress increases. Why? My typical explanation of this stress would be that I’m anticipating the discomfort and inconvenience of squeezing into a narrow space that’s stuffy and full of elbows and backpacks and other things that’ll be bumping into me. But there’s another way to think about this. Maybe the stress isn’t coming from anticipated discomfort. Maybe the stress is arising because as soon as I see the crowded train, I immediately start wanting something. I want the train to be empty. And I want it to have arrived on time. I’m not getting what I want. Maybe it’s the not-getting that’s stressing me out, more so than the anticipation.

This framework of understanding stress as wanting and not getting can even apply to physical pain. Pain starts out as a raw sensation. But this sensation immediately makes us want something. We want the sensation to go away. At least, we want to be able to ignore it and turn our attention away from it. But we don’t get what we want. It doesn’t go away and we can’t stop focusing on it. So pain really is three things 1) the raw sensation itself, 2) the induced desire for the sensation to go away, and 3) the frustration of not getting what we’re being made to want. To offer a circular definition: pain is the experience of wanting to be rid of pain and not getting what we want.

There are two ways out of this situation. First, we can eventually get what we want and indeed be rid of the uncomfortable sensation. Second, we can reduce the intensity of our desire to be rid of the sensation, and thereby reduce the frustration we experience in not getting what we want. That’s not say it’s easy. But handling pain might become a little bit easier if we remember that not getting what we want is normal, natural, commonplace, and highly probable. Whenever we assume we should get what we want and that not getting it means “something’s wrong,” we’re imposing an expectation on ourselves that might not really pay off, because it might intensify our distress without actually guaranteeing that “getting what we want” will be any more likely to occur. ■

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