In yesterday’s poem I used the word “miswanted.” This is not standard English, but perhaps you can guess what it means: wanting something that will not actually make you happy.

I didn’t invent the term. I got it from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. (He, in turn, attributes it to Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, who I would describe as “two people I had never heard of.”) Kahneman writes, “This word deserves to be in everyday language,” and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s an elegant term for a supremely important idea.

Wanting something that will not actually make you happy. How many hours and years do we spend chasing mirages of happiness that evaporate as we come near? And where do those mirages come from, anyway?

Kahneman says a big part of the problem is something called the focusing illusion, which he sums up this way:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

In other words, mentally focusing on something makes it seem like a bigger deal than it really is.

This is how a car salesman gets you to buy a sunroof. As he describes it, you form a mental picture of yourself cruising down the freeway, the sun on your back and a breeze in your hair. You begin to think this mental picture would make a pretty nice reality.

Your fantasy neglects to mention two things. First, how often will you actually use this feature? And second, how much happier will you really be while using it?

Most of the time you spend driving, you’re not thinking about the gadgets in your car. You’re thinking about bills you have to pay, presents you have to buy, calls you need to make. That’s not going to change. Fundamentally, there’s a disconnect between the planning part of your brain and the experiencing self – the present-moment you, floating in a sea of sensations and feelings and thought.

What can you do about this?

The first and biggest step is simply to be aware that a disconnect exists. Before you spend money or time on something, make the effort to ask if you’re miswanting. If happiness is the goal, how much happier will this really make you? Is it possible you’d be better off without it?

Do you find yourself falling into this trap, and how do you avoid it?


6 responses to “Miswanting

  1. can’t say I have any distinct memory of miswanting, although I’m sure it’s happened to me before. Nowadays I’m isolated enough that I really don’t encounter these situations anyway.
    Love the post on psychology though. Always a great way to start off the day, since Psychology is so much fun to learn about.

  2. I’ve come to realize lately that majority of the time we can choose what to feel.. I dont think a lot of people will agree with me on that. Ive had countless arguments on why you can’t do that, it’s bad to suppress emotion etc etc, but that’s the way I see it and knowing I have a choice has kept me from miswanting these days as opposed to when I was younger..

  3. This is something that happens to me a lot with food. I get a craving, and I actually try to weigh my various options by picturing what it will be like to eat that food. Even if its something that I’ve had a dozen times before, it often is not quite as good as what I would have thought. I feel like I talk myself into things that don’t actually satisfy me. Except Rallys. Rallys is always awesome.

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