Scott H Young

How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy


The Buddha once claimed that desire creates suffering. On the surface this seems to make sense. You feel pain when you don’t get what you want. The solution, in Buddhism, is to cease desiring things and therefore your suffering will end. Somehow, that doesn’t feel right.

Sure, desire may create pain, but doesn’t it also provide meaning to life? In trying to remove the pain, don’t you also erase the joy, leaving you with a dull, gray existence. In this article I’d like to explore a third alternative, and how you can still experience joy without clinging to things.

Why Be Without Desire?

Before I go off into the high mountaintops of philosophical inquiry, let’s look at the practical matters. What does being without desire for things mean and why might it seem like a good idea?

For this example, let’s say you crave to be rich. I’m using wealth as an example but it could be anything, a healthy body, great relationships, academic or career success. Your craving to be rich leads to a couple side-effects:

  • Until you become rich, you are dissatisfied. Like a man starving for food, you will feel hungry until your desire is satiated.
  • You might never become rich. This may seem pessimistic, but you can’t entirely reject the possibility that the wealth you seek may never come. You are forever hungry.
  • Even if you do achieve great sums of money, the feeling of fullness won’t last. Either you will find a new goal to crave, or you will become bored with your accomplishment.

Here’s a simple diagram showing your level of satisfaction with your current situation:

CravingGraph

Even in the best circumstances, feeling full only lasts a moment.

Enjoyable Craving

The common counter-argument to this is that craving can be enjoyable. Feeling desire strongly can be a good feeling. So it isn’t fair to say that the entire build-up to a goal is painful.

I disagree. Pure craving is pain. Few people starving for food would describe the feeling as enjoyable. Loneliness is rarely referred to as being fun. Feeling poor, restricted or lacking are all forms of pain. Hope that tomorrow might be a bit better is only a small relief for the pain of craving. The Buddha is right, desire is suffering.

Should You Just Give Up?

With such a depressing outlook on the human condition, does this mean I recommend giving up your goals, selling your clothes and living in a hut smoking whatever pleasure inducing drugs you can manage to afford? Of course not.

There’s a third alternative. The decision isn’t between craving and emptiness. The third option is what I’m going to call a process focus. When you have a process focus, from an objective standpoint you don’t appear much different, you still set goals, have challenges and learn from failures. The difference is that craving no longer creates the pain it once did and you are free to live happier without wanting more stuff.

A Focus on Process

The problem with craving is that it is incomplete. It places the entire emphasis on only one moment, the goal. In your desire to be rich, this means that the entire emphasis is placed on the moment you reach a particular income. Everything before is merely a lead-up to this moment, and everything after is simply a consequence of it.

CravingFocus

The alternative is to emphasize the entire process. This means that the moment of achievement is no more or less important than the first step or two months in.

ProcessFocus

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s a nice platitude, but I don’t think it captures the real impact of what I’m suggesting. Small snippets of wisdom like this feel nice, but rarely communicate anything important. “Be yourself,” is another piece of frequently-cited wisdom that has become essentially meaningless.

What a Process Focus Means

A process focus means that successes and failures are equal. This has a nice ring to it, but it’s a system few people follow. How often can you say that you feel just as good with a win as you do with a loss? Instead, most people operate from craving, where success means satisfaction and failures are pain.

A process focus treats any pursuit as you would a game. In a game, the act of playing is the real motivation, not the win. After a heated chess match, you are generally no better off now that you’ve won. The only reason to play was the process of playing.

When you approach an area of life from a process focus, you see the entire path, not the goal as the reason to start. Run a business because you love running a business, not just because of the status, wealth or service it might bring. Interest in the process is more important than the result of a goal.

Examples of a Process Focus

Now I’d like to climb down the philosophical mountain for a bit and deal with the day-to-day. What does a process focus look like? Here are a few examples, in them you can easily imagine the opposite of operating from desire:

John decides to start dating. Instead of making it his goal to get a girlfriend, sleep with a bunch of women or become a modern-day Casanova, he becomes interested in other people and how dating works. Rejections and failures don’t bother him, because he is driven by an interest in other people and the process, not curing loneliness, lust or validating himself.

Julie begins school. She makes it her goal to become a doctor, but doesn’t focus on it. Instead she focuses on the classes, becoming curious about the material and how she can apply it to her interests. She even writes down goals for her term marks and GPA, but these are just constraints to make the process more fun and challenging for her, whether she achieves them or not doesn’t diminish her interest in what is happening right now.

Patrick is overweight. He sets a goal to lose twenty pounds, but doesn’t obsess over it. He starts by trying out different forms of exercise, eventually settling on running as something he enjoys. He tries to beat his previous records and makes a game out of putting on his shorts and jogging out each morning. He meets his weight-loss goal in record time, but sees it as only a minor bonus to a process he loves.

Hopefully these can give a picture of what a process orientation looks like from the inside-out. These are people who effortlessly achieve their goals. Not because they never challenge themselves, but simply because they don’t crave. They don’t want things, but are still happy because they engage themselves in the process.

Tomorrow I’ll post a follow-up article on how you can start building a process-orientation into your life.


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36 Responses to “How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy”

  1. Rahul says:

    Scott,

    This is a great post. I’ve actually shifted to this kind of focus in my own life. It all started with martial arts (all about the journey, not the black belt).

    I stress this approach to all of my friends that are trying to get better with women and dating. Having a process focus is the best way to handle it, and it actually leads to more success with women because you are enjoying every step along the way.

    Thanks for this post, I like the term “process focus”.

  2. Good stuff, Scott. I´ve also been focusing on the process when I for instance write for my blog. Or when I work out.

    It´s a good way to connect to the moment and not be hindered by your own mental roadblocks and inner limitations. And it makes it easier to get things done and make life more pleasurable. Looking forward to your insights tomorrow.

  3. Great Scott, I have some years thinking about how my entrepreneur heroes seems to earn money very easy, the most usual answer is that they love what they are doing, their financial situation is a bonus for doing what they really like

    Thanks !!

  4. Ben says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for another insightful post.

    Over the past decade and a half I had battled an addiction to drinking soft drinks, Coca Cola in particular. When I ever set a goal of giving up the soft drinks I always ended up faltering after I had started.

    This time around I set up an accountability tracking process where the goal of never drinking soft drink was secondary to watching my progress as I followed my new process.

    I have been able to stick to this goal this time because there is no fixed goal (such as not drinking soft drink for a year, the terms of the goal continually change) but a process that I have found interesting. I have also used the game analogy as well. I also learnt from what didn’t work for me in the past and I also managed to not beat myself up mentally about past failures.

    I’m looking forward to your next article.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone, there will be more on this subject tomorrow.

  6. Lu says:

    Sweet Lord and Jesus moment here! What an awesome message and it really could not have come at a better time in my life. It explains a lot of my boredom after achieving a goal and now I see that I forgot to enjoy the process and make my goal about the process. Seriously, what a light bulb moment. I will definitely be back to visit your blog and I had to post about this message on mine.

  7. gayle says:

    Hi Scott,

    Just discovered your blog thru Zen Habits. This post is a great one for me to start off reading.

    I look at goal vs process as goal vs side effect. For example, if living healthy is your goal, losing weight is the side effect. If being stable with money is your goal, wealth is the side effect.

    You have to be clear on what you desire and why. And you must not fear it’s loss, because here comes that pain again. Fear is our biggest motivator.

    Looking forward to you in my RSS feed. Thanks!

  8. brian says:

    Great post Scott … your “process focus” I believe is just another word for “equinimity” – which is a popular word used throughout Buddhism.

    “Sure, desire may create pain, but doesn’t it also provide meaning to life? In trying to remove the pain, don’t you also erase the joy, leaving you with a dull, gray existence.” People seem to gather the wrong assumptions about Buddhism – that they have no desire, and that this means you live a boring, uneventful life. But when you erase duality, you actually have more freedom to enjoy life to it’s fullest. The idea is to not cling to joy or pain – but hover in the middle – the “middle path.” You don’t have a dull, gray existance – you have equinimity – which is complete freedom. Buddhism is a path of renunciation. Stuff gets taken away as you move along the path. If you want suffering to go away, then you have to give up joy. Why would you want to give up joy? Well, you have a perfect balance of mind when joy or sorrow ceases to exist. You have equinimity. The Buddha says we already have more love, happiness, kindness, wisdom and generocity than we’ll ever need, we just have to get rid of the greed, hatred, lust and dilusions.

    Keep up the great work – a co-worker turned me onto your site, and I’m going to explore more of it.

  9. Santiago says:

    Thanks for an excellent post scott, I find this describes almost the perfection the way I think, “enjoy the ride” I say to everyone… I will be blogging about this with some comments too!

    Great read!

  10. […] How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy […]

  11. Great post! I think another reason focusing too much on the goal instead of the process causes pain is that it makes you disregard just how far you’ve come. As long as you’re totally focused on an end result, you don’t realise that you’re making great strides along the way. As long as you’re not at that end result, nothing matters. Looking forward to the next post!

  12. Julien says:

    Scott,

    Pleasant read, but I may add some elements to the beginning of your post.
    Since recently, I’ve started to study buddhism and its philosophy.

    And what you’re saying about a grey, empty life seems to me strong. I’m sure you know there are a few branches in this philosophy, spirituality that is buddhism.

    The one I’m interested in is the vajrayāna buddhism.

    I let you read more on Wikipedia or another source of reliable information, you’ll see that others are the main source of happiness and that it is on the contrary not the goal to live an empty, emotionless life.

    If I may advice you some reading that has made me discover some very interesting principles is a book from author Matthieu Ricard, a french scientist that has left his “successful” life to dedicate his life to buddhism.
    He is now the French translator for the Dalaï-Lama.

    This book is called “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” and is pleasant to read whether you want to begin the process of studying buddhism or just want some enlightenment.

    Go in peace.

    Best regards
    Julien

  13. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    I just wanted to point out that my article wasn’t meant to attack Buddhism. Indeed, much of this writing is based on my interpretations of Buddhism. My introductory paragraph was a way of reflecting current perceptions about desire so that I could shift towards an alternative viewpoint.

    -Scott

  14. […] confuse this completion focus (which deals with the process of getting things done) and a process focus (which deals with the broader theme of craving and motivation) as the two function together, just […]

  15. This is such a subtle but powerful attitude shift. Focussing on the process also means you stay open to what happens to you while you’re in the process, and are able to accept the ways in which taking part in the process changes you as you go along. Whereas focussing solely on the goal is like taking a trip with your eyes closed. Focussing on the process also keeps you in the present moment. I know that it’s been said a lot – enjoy the here and now, carpe diem, etc, but on a practical level, staying present is an ongoing focus on the process of living.

    I have often wondered whether the Buddhist “eradicate desire” idea has been slightly misunderstood. I’ve always seen the Buddhist teachings as a way to encourage an understanding of desire and the human condition rather than to eradicate it, an understanding that leads to awareness, that is akin to focussing on the process of day to day living, an awareness that leads to simple daily liberations from the grasping self. Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. What I wanted to say is, you wrote a thought provoking, inspirational and practical post. Thanks.

  16. David says:

    Hi Scott

    Good article, I found it very helpful. Thanks for taking the time.

    NGNM

    David :-)

  17. Larry says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the excellent article it was just what I needed. My life looks like your first graph, for I am easily bored and many times it’s before I ever reach my goal. Thanks!

  18. […] Out of a few hundred post on his site two have really hit home with me, the first is titled, How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy; this is by far the one thing that has tripped me up the […]

  19. Debi says:

    Thank you for putting this concept so eloquently. As a middle school teacher in a Montessori school, this is exactly what we try to teach our students. It is not a failure when we make mistakes… rather we hope to learn more about ourselves, to gather insight which we can apply the next time we face a situation. When students come to our school from years in a traditional school setting, it takes a long time to change the goal/perfection focus mentality. It is counterintuitive to the way the we are pushed toward success, but would really help a lot of people find joy in the experiences of life. It reminds me of something I heard from a friend who was beating up on himself about mistakes he had made. He was trying to get a new perspective…to look at himself with curiosity, not condemnation. Thanks again!

  20. Great approach,

    I would add that the basics of the Four Noble Truths can be made more explicit, if useful. For example, suffering is often the psychological states of frustration and disappointment which can lead to jealousy, hatred, greed, and an erosion of self-esteem. Another approach to this is to work on overcoming those states directly. Also, it is not desire, per se, but one’s attachment to the desire that is the crux of the problem. Buddhists, particularly Zen Buddhists have often been at the forefront of cultural, artistic, and political change. It is not that they didn’t desire these changes, but rather that they worked tirelessly towards them, but free of being wedded or attached to the outcome.

  21. Hottie CF says:

    What I should say………………….. Just Great, excellent article!!!!!
    Looking forward to your the next post!

  22. […] to new readers, this article is a continuation of last week’s “How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy” and “How to Be an Effortless Achiever.” In those articles I showed how craving things causes […]

  23. Gary says:

    Another great post, Scott. Thanks for researching this stuff for the rest of us.

    As far as focusing on the process and not being obsessed with the ultimate goal, Coach John Wooden is one of the greatest examples of living this out. While he was marching through 10 NCAA championships, he didn’t talk about winning, but focused daily on the process of making his players better players and better people as well. Ultimately the winning took care of itself.

  24. chika says:

    Excuse me, but this is all very trite and nothing more than platitudes

    Supposing the thing you want so much is integral to your existence? Do you just say “Ohmmmmm” and stare off into the existence and hope it appears on the horizon somewhere? Supposing you have been doing that for the last 3 years and it hasn’t made an appearance, then what?

    I don’t think your post works for everyone. It’s so easy to sit there and terribly philosophical about things when you don’t have to scratch your head everyday and wonder how you’re going to pay your rent.

    Do you actually believe what you’ve written or is it something you’ve read somewhere and you’ve decided to regurgitate here?

  25. Scott Young says:

    Chika,

    Good point. Survival comes first. I wouldn’t suggest starving yourself or being unable to pay the rent. But survival isn’t the critical issue for most people.

    I know people who have never had a moment near starvation in their life. Sure, there are people who manage to rack up too much debt or live a lifestyle they can’t afford. But that is different than actually being close to death.

    This philosophy has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the goals you set and your preoccupation with them.

    Is this something I believe? Everything I write is something I believe and I refuse to regurgitate anything. More importantly this is something I practice. Process IS more important to me than results and I have become happier as a consequence. Hence, my decision to write about it here.

  26. […] Scott H Young had some truly excellent articles last month. My favourites were The Art of The Finish and the process focused series that started with How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy. […]

  27. […] straipsnio “How to Not Want Things and Still Be Happy” dalis yra grafikas, kuriame matai būseną prieš įsigijant kokį daiktą, jį įsigijus ir… […]

  28. Emily says:

    Dear Scott,

    I am trying to not want big things so much, and trying to have a more positive attitude on giving things up. I hope it won’t take as long as it feels it will. . .but I’ll keep trying.

  29. Antonio says:

    Thank you for covering this subject! I like the idea that attachment(desire) is the root of suffering, but finding a reason for goals then has been the great dilemma I’ve been going through regarding Buddhism.

  30. riaz says:

    Once I heard Will Smitt said that If you want to build a wall, don’t make it as a goal. Just focus on single brick a day and place that single brick with as mcuh perfection as it could be. after some time, you will have a beautiful wall….I like that idea but you named it for me and I am sure, I am gonna make use of it in life. Thanks

  31. bruno says:

    Nice post. When it comes right down to it, how people process their wins or losses determines the true value of such outcomes. Process is realy all we have as oppossed to outcomes. Many reach their goals only to be unhappy with the way they have managed their success–i.e., they did not focus on the post success process!

  32. Teekam saini says:

    Obviously i am(actually i Was) disappointed that’s why i’m reading these type of articles. I found it my favorite one. When i faced some failures, automaticaly i had know option but to focus on process which make me keep running towards the goal i’m pessimist about now. Actually this article is based on common sense but it’s not common. Now i(after self realization) don’t crave for delicious food, a girlfriend, costly-gadgets, entertainment and the everything which costs money and time eventhough the things are affordable but i prefer to live without them. I’m waiting for the right time when i’ll have thier real-deep-taste later on. And i won’t be bothered if i’d not be able to do so. I’m enjoying my quotidian, juiceless but adventurious journey which also please me being survivle everytime. I get amused by this means because i know life becomes boring so easily when you have fun all the time. May be i’m focusing too much on the real meaning of life(actually the purpose why i was born) and i don’t think it’s only for getting sensual pleasure using the money.

  33. Manish says:

    Not Wanting anything is also a WANT
    Not Desiring anything is also a DESIRE
    Not Thinking anything is also a THOUGHT

  34. saskia says:

    i can understand the whole meaning of what your trying to say(which is a great message by the way) but could you give an example of a child’s needs? Because i am one and your examples aren’t exactly solving my issue(or maybe i just don’t understand) because i haven’t been in those situations. My problem is that i like electronics a lot and is easily influenced by commercials. Could you help explain this issue? I still enjoyed your post though! It helped me be aware of our lives.

  35. […] How To Not Want Things And Still Be Happy – [ScottHYoung] […]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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