It’s something everyone has experienced, you desperately crave something, you chase, research, dedicate so much time to achieving it, a relentless pursuit.
Eventually, against all odds, that (fill in the blank here) is yours. Your journey finally comes to an end, what joy! Until, of course, the next something comes along and the journey basically resets and you start all over again, leaving you thinking that the last something wasn’t really the thing you were looking for, however the next something well . . .
Why is that? Why are we never satisfied? Why do we always want?
Lessons from religion
Spoiler, the answer wasn’t religion. so this is bit of a side note :)
Many moons ago I attended a Catholic youth group session where this very subject of why we always want more was to be addressed. Being that it was a religious gathering, there was a pretty good hint as to what the answer was going to be . . . sigh.
The answer of course according to religion? I was missing Christ in my life. The answer seemed to be a bit of a cop-out, replacing one need with another. If I was going to put Christ front and center in my life, I was still always going to want more . . . a closer relationship with God, and need to help others to show my worthiness, etc. None of these are bad things, of course, however, it wasn’t answering the question. It was simply switching games, substituting one need for another.
Religion didn’t hold the answer, at least for me it didn’t.
Lessons from genetics
I turned my attention to genetics, if this is something everyone experiences at some point, perhaps it’s something encoded in our DNA, an evolutionary trait offering a survival advantage?
Evolutionary psychology assumes that human behavior is being shaped, indeed determined, by processes of natural selection: those modes of behavior that favor the replication of the genome will be the ones to survive. We behave as we do because we are designed to optimize the chances of our surviving long enough to replicate our genetic material. Men who sleep with a lot of women, or at least attempt to, are simply responding to the fundamental biological imperative to make the world safe for their genes by making multiple copies of them to last through the ages.
The selfish gene
religious beliefs, they possess you because they improve your chances of survival.
You may think that you chose your mate because she was kind, and witty, and shared your view of the world. Forget it! A term coined by Richard Dawkins: the selfish gene, you were attracted to her because she had a waist/hip ratio (the ratio of the circumference of the waist to that of the hips) that approximated to the 0.7, a figure which is associated with good health and fertility. As for your political or religious beliefs (if you have them), they possess you because they improve your chances of survival or that of the group to which you belong. You haven’t chosen them; they have chosen you! The things you want are merely a consequence of your genes achieving replication.
At first, the selfish gene theory makes sense, but what about couples that marry but end up choosing not to have children, or priests or nuns? These throw a spanner in the works and suggest gene replication isn’t all that drives our decisions and wants.
Lessons from Neuroscience
Neuroscience shows that the act of seeking itself, rather than the goals we realize, is key to satisfaction.
Whether we’re striving for a new job, meaningful relationships, or personal enlightenment, it seems we need to actively want something more in order to live well. This may sound like a contradiction, rejecting material things and seeking enlightenment or spiritual fulfillment sounds like a viable way to reject “the need”. However, this can’t be the case since being enlightened is an infinite game, you will constantly seek it, research it, practice it and pursue it.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. All mammals have this seeking system, says Panskepp, wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This means animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves.
Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation
Panskepp notes in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that the rats do not seem to find electrocution pleasurable. “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation,” he writes. Instead of being driven by any reward, he argues, the rats were motivated by the need to seek itself.
The human desire to seek can help make sense of studies showing that achieving major goals or even winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness. But our drive to look ahead needn’t cause a permanent state of dissatisfaction, as seeking is itself a fulfilling activity.
Evan Thompson, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, says that the entire field of philosophy can be seen as an expression of this seeking impulse. Rather than coming up with a philosophical answer and then resting, content with the solution, Thompson says many philosophers would say the quest is an end in itself.
Why is seeking the reward?
Seeking, wanting, needing or whatever you want to call it is the reward and not so much the end goal — why is that? I know it sounds like I asked this way back in the beginning, but now we know (from neuroscience) that seeking is what we really crave the question of why we crave seeking is a lot simpler to answer than “why we always want a thing/position, etc . . . ”
Think of it this way, we start watching a series on Netflix, your goal is to get to the last episode the fun part is watching all the episodes before the end. Once you get to the end, you feel satisfied but not in the mood to start again. You’ve learned what you’ve needed to learn about the characters and the story, your brain is ready for more. Seeking is learning, learning is what our brain craves, learning creates new neural connections and reinforces existing connections. Learning and seeking also causes a spike in dopamine.
Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation.
There are two systems at play liking and wanting
Never stop wanting
Everyone has some notion of how their world should look. We constantly chase things that will reinforce this view, whether it be an object like a car or a status like CEO. The journey towards those goals is what ultimately reinforces your world view. Learning to cook will make you feel like a cook as opposed to just calling yourself a cook when you’ve never even tried to fry an egg.
The chase is the reward and without it, without the struggle, our lives drift into a weird Utopian despair, think “The Matrix” where the architect explains to Neo how thousands of power-producing humans were lost when they lived in a virtual world free from want and suffering.
The act of seeking itself, rather than the goals, is key to satisfaction.