The things we want

One of the more interesting things about the Christmas season is that we get to ask for what we want, and if we’re lucky, we actually end up with it.  Of course, the cynical reader immediately responds with, “Christmas is about asking for material possessions, which isn’t nearly the same as what we really want.”  And, to an extent, that’s true: Christmas certainly involves an awful lot of physical things — possessions — changing hands.  But, I really do think that such a perspective is too cynical (if that’s possible).  The saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” is very apt — there are few things nicer than getting a gift that shows understanding and thought; it’s not that the gift itself isn’t necessarily nice (because it’s usually great), but more that it feels wonderful to have proof that someone out there cares enough about you, and knows you well enough to hit the bulls-eye with a gift.  Sentimental value isn’t a material possession.  And, beyond that, some gifts really aren’t material items to begin with.  I have a friend who just spent days traveling to return from living halfway around the world, as a Christmas surprise for her mother.  I’m pretty confident it was the best gift her mother got this year.

What all this asking, and giving, and receiving does, though, is put focus on what we really do want, hope for, and aspire to.   We all have things that, if we had them, we think we would be happy.  What I’m wondering is how often we’re actually right about it.

Nothing sucks more than opening a Christmas present, seeing exactly the thing you asked for, and then taking the toy out of the box and discovering that it isn’t so great after all.  This year’s hot toy for kids?  Zhu Zhu Pets hamsters.   They had one hell of an advertising push, and pretty much became this year’s Tickle-Me Elmo in terms of supply and demand. However, they’re basically just furry little bricks with wheels on the bottom, that can scoot around through special playsets and make cute lil’ hamster noises when you push a button.


Today is the 28th; I suspect a lot of kids are already bored with the little plastic rodents that their desperate parents eBay-ed  at such enormous expense.  And, I don’t really blame the kids for that.  Nothing could be as fun as the advertising and media hype around these toys made them out to be.  As a result, disappointment was pretty much inevitable.  People are like that — we build up our hopes and expectations, because we really, really want our goals and dreams to bring us the happiness we’re looking for.

(Mind you, it’s not like everything is a disappointment.  Anyone who got a Playstation 3 for Christmas is probably doing pretty well right about now.)

Maybe it’s not very Christmas-y (although, neither are falling children), but this year in particular I’m thinking about what it means to want something, and I notice that a lot of the time people don’t seem to get it quite right.  This last year I’ve seen a bunch of people in my life get something that they thought they wanted, but it hasn’t made them happy the way they hoped or expected.  I’ve also seen people pine for something so much, put so much dependence upon something to make them happy, that they end up unhappy because they reach for it so hard that they don’t enjoy the rest of their lives.

Life pretty much by definition isn’t perfect, and people aren’t always perfectly happy.  So, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what needs to be added or changed to make things better.  When someone is sad, the first thing we ask is, “What’s wrong?” followed by, “What can we do to cheer you up?”; happiness is the natural state, and if you’re not happy then something is wrong, and needs to be fixed.  But, it’s not that simple, and Christmas shows us this.  If some kid really wants a Zhu Zhu hamster and doesn’t get it, he’s disappointed because he didn’t get what he was hoping for.  But, if he gets his furry electronic brick with wheels he’s still going to be disappointed, because even if it’s a fun little toy it just can’t live up to his unrealistic expectations.  Basically, that kid hoped for something a little too hard, and put himself in a place where he wasn’t going to be happy no matter what happened.

People do this all the time.  We should know better.  But, we do it anyway.  It’s just too easy to pin our happiness and dreams on something, even when logically we know that it probably won’t work out the way we hope, or give us the satisfaction that we’re looking for.

But, is that kind of false hope necessarily a bad thing?  It’s good to have hope, right?  Especially when the alternative is giving up on happiness because it’s unattainable, misplaced hope seems decent enough.  Is it heartening to pine for something, or stupid to misplace desires?  The idealistic reader, of course, says that false hope is bad, and that we should all strive for a realistic and honest perspective on our own needs and desires.  But, is it just a lack of self-honesty, or are misplaced desires more like a typo in your school essay, where you just can’t see it because to you it makes sense no matter what it really says?

My friend who surprised her mother by returning from living abroad in time for Christmas, she came back much sooner than anyone expected.  That’s wonderful for her mother and the rest of us, but I can’t help but think she wouldn’t be back so soon if things there had been as fulfilling as she’d hoped.  She planned and saved for a long time to go away, and now she’s back.  It seems that maybe she didn’t find what she was looking for.  And, we all know people who pine after a person even though the person they want isn’t really the person they pursue; they want who that person used to be, or who that person could be, or who they imagine that person to be.  It’s very easy to fall for the person in your head, and not the person who’s actually in front of you.  Or, they get the person, and then realise that the lack of a relationship wasn’t what made them unhappy after all.  I get that way about possessions sometimes (although, I am pretty happy with the Playstation 3), and I’ve definitely been in that place with women.  I suspect that most behavioral compulsions — gambling, shopping, serial-dating, sex, crawling into your neighbour’s apartment when he’s not around and hiding his TV remote — come from that desperate desire to validate our hopes and expectations: “It didn’t work last time, but this time will be different.  This time it will work out right.”

Obviously, the response to everything I’ve written so far is that real hope is good, and that lots of people get what they wish for, and are happy.  But, how many of those people really knew that their aspirations would lead to happiness?  Or, put another, how many of those people basically formed their aspirations around a lucky guess?  If the man you wanted desperately to be with ended up being co-incidentally enough like the vision in your head to make you happy, isn’t that just luck?  A broken clock twice a day, a million monkeys and a million typewriters, a pocket full of turnips, and so on.  When we get what we want and it makes us happy, is that good planning or dumb luck?

And, if you accept, or even suspect, such a depressing premise, then the notion of false or misguided hope doesn’t seem so terrible after all.  It’s almost certainly better than nothing, which might be all that an honest and objective analysis would give you.  People are complicated, and the things that make us unhappy usually aren’t simple.  If misguided hope has a chance of making you happy anyway, does that maybe outweigh how often you’ll end up disappointed?

My personal stake in this is the point at which a friend should be telling someone to let go of a unhealthy or unrealistic hope.  How do you say to someone, “I think that what you hope for is misguided, and you are hurting yourself for feeling this way”?  I mean, obviously, when you finally say it, you say it just like that.  But, getting the words out is another story entirely, and I’m not sure it’s always right to say anything at all.  If I want someone to be happy, are misguided hopes better than nothing?  And, who’s to say that those  misguided hopes might not still work out well anyway?  Misguided hopes can sometimes at least bring you dumb luck.

So, are hopes a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a thing?  I don’t like the idea that my hopes may be naïve or poorly-considered, but when I’m at my most cynical (and most depressing), I really do suspect that a lot of the things I want are based so little on reality and reasonable expectations that it might be a smart idea to let some of them go.  People are who they are, not who I want them to be, and possessions don’t come packaged with happiness.

That was all very gloomy.  I’m not trying to suggest that people can’t be happy, and I’m certainly not proposing that good things don’t happen.  But, it’s also true that there is often a pretty big disconnect between what people think will make them happy, and what actually will make them happy; we often place our hopes and dreams on things that probably aren’t going to work out the way we want.  And, a lot of the time we suspect that our hopes are flawed, but we ignore that and willfully keep hoping, because we want so much for things to work out.  It’s not healthy, but it is very human, and I’m pretty sure just about everyone does it.

The question is, what do we do  about it?

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