Fear and Desire: Two Sides of the Same Coin

I touched on this in my last post, but I think this point is critical enough to warrant a post of its own. Desire and fear are emotions predicated upon the future. Desire makes you expect happiness once your need is met, and fear makes you expect unhappiness or pain when something bad happens. However – the expected emotions (happiness/unhappiness or joy/pain) from desire and fear are always more severe than they would be in reality. Ever have something important and scary coming up – a big presentation, a speech, or any other pressure-filled situation? Remember how you felt beforehand – you were probably fearing that you’d mess up, that the ordeal would be torture, that there was no way that you could make it. I’ve been in those situations many times, and my default response would be to go into “survival mode” – to do the least possible to pass the time and get through it. However, when it was all over, you probably looked back on it and said something like, “Well, it wasn’t that bad! I was foolish for worrying so much.” That’s this principle in practice. Your expected unhappiness (fear) was much worse than your actual unhappiness (your emotional response after the event). This has huge implications, and can help you disarm fear with fear. However, the flip-side of the coin is that you’ll also realize that the things you desire will actually improve your life less than you think. The lesson: don’t project your (un)happiness onto the future, because the (un)happiness you’ll actually experience, should the imagined future in your life become true, will be much less than you think.

Fighting Fear With Fear

Since the unhappiness that you’re projecting into the future is actually your fear, and you know (via this post) that your unhappiness will be less than your fear predicts, you can erase your fear from your mind. That is, your knowledge that your future will hurt you less than you think invalidates your fear, as it is. This is common sense. Why believe in your fear if you know it’s wrong? I know this is all easier said and done, but the only way you can possibly break free from fear using this method (note: you’ll never be free of it, but your degree of fear will lessen over time) is if you constantly remind yourself that it is an illusion, and even if the worst happens, your emotional turmoil will not be as bad as the fear itself. Once it’s reality, you’ll have no choice but to accept it, which makes you cope with it. Put it this way – no matter what, you can endure the pain that your fear brings you. If the pain you’re going to experience is actually less than your fear anticipates, then you can definitely make it through whatever you’re dreading.

Stoic Desires

With the same revelation about desires, you’d expect me to say something like, “Your desires are false since they promise more happiness than they’ll bring, so stop wanting everything,” right? Wrong. I think wanting things – whatever’s important to you – is an important part of life and leads us to greater and greater heights. If you renounced your desires totally, you would not be having a whole lot of fun in life. They key is to keep your desires in check by coming from the right place – the frame of mind where achieving the things you desire won’t complete you, but instead will give you a little bit of fun and joy to add to your life as a bonus. You should already feel like you are the source of good emotions in your life, but achieving your desires should make your life even more fun. If you see your desires as the source of good emotions, that’s when you’re going to start to be let-down by the fact that your desires promise more joy than you actually receive, which will then spur you to consume endlessly to scratch that itch that never goes away. We simply overestimate how much something will change our lives for the better, 99% of the time. We think a new TV will dramatically increase our enjoyment whenever we watch things on it, but really, it only increases our enjoyment by a little bit in the long run – probably less than 10%. This goes for any possession – we love it at first, but we get used to it and, eventually, realize it doesn’t provide us with much happiness at all. However, in some cases, our desires can predict the happiness something will bring us, particularly if it causes a massive change. To name a few: travel, moving, new jobs, relationships, and other intense experiences are things that can dramatically change our lives (for better or worse). In these situations, our desires may inflate things a little bit, but the potential is always there for a giant change in well-being. For the smaller things, though – realize your desires are overestimating in order to provoke you to act to get those things. If you want them, go ahead. But you must also realize that those things cannot “add” to you in any way, and you are the sole source of good emotions in your life. Once you start depending on them to feel good, you’re going to run into trouble. What do you think about desires and fears? Should we ignore them, since they lie to us? Can we ever live completely in the present in an age where foresight and planning is necessary?

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