“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
In Mike Cahill’s idiosyncratic and charming indie film King of California, a mentally troubled man with a history of quixotic quests and implausible dreams attempts to discover an ancient treasure that he believes was buried by a Spanish renegade. This pursuit costs him peace and soundness of mind, but it animates him, impels him on an absurd mission with vigor and excitement. In the end, he sacrifices his life for what he believes is the gold. (The audience is never shown if he actually found the gold, and I suppose that the director’s point is that it doesn’t matter if he did). The “absurd quest” is a common theme in literature, made most famous, perhaps, by the morose and maniacal Captain Ahab, who spitefully chases the white whale Moby Dick across the sea, finally destroying himself, his ship, and his crew (save for the narrator of the novel, who survived for obvious reasons) in a final confrontation. (Ahab was killed by his own harpoon, which is symbolically appropriate).
Although these quests are more grandiose—perhaps sublime—in art, they are familiar in everyday life. Most of us are pursuing something that requires us to sacrifice temporary comfort or opportunity. As I touched upon in an earlier blog about affective forecasting, part of the reason for such quests is a cognitive bias that exaggerates the impact of future events. That is, our brains are designed to believe that prospective events, both good and bad, will have a larger impact on our emotions than they actually do (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003; 2005). Captain Ahab was monomaniacally obsessed with the white whale because he thought his extermination of it would bring lasting satisfaction. Similarly, we are obsessed with that next publication, that fancy sports car, that upcoming tenure meeting, because we exaggerate their positive effects on our life. The truth is, once we obtain what we desire, we become bored or acclimated to it and swiftly discover something else to covet. From the perspective of a hypothetical Martian, we might appear similar to proverbial moths attracted to a fatal flame. (I am thankful, however, that our apparent stupidity can spur the writing of brilliant literature). But perhaps this “deluded” passion is positive?
In an excellent article on human biases, Haselton and Nettle (2006) argued that we are “paranoid optimists.” That is, we are excessively paranoid about possible dangers, but equally assured that the future will be better than the past—that our lives are improving. We are also prone to slight discontent, which is counteracted by high expectations for future gains. Many philosophers have lamented this folly, this need to constantly flit from pleasure to pleasure and concomitant inability to enjoy what we currently possess, but from an evolutionary perspective, this propensity is entirely sensible. Contentment breeds indolence. Why strive for a promotion, a publication, a mate, when you are already satisfied? Only the subtle stirrings of craving, the perception of lacking something, impel action. And action, in the currency of genetic propagation, is often better than inaction. However, from an existential perspective, this proclivity does present a problem: complete contemporary satisfaction is difficult to achieve. Furthermore, what satisfaction we do achieve is sometimes imperiled by a reckless desire for more (more sexual encounters, more money, more…). Thus the painful veracity of Oscar Wilde’s clever quip.
I think the solution to this problem requires two steps: 1) understand when such desires are deleterious and when they are advantageous and 2) attach yourself to a goal that cannot be completely satisfied. The first is not always easy, and it is difficult to inoculate one’s self from the tempting power of anticipated bliss. For example, many marriages are destroyed because one of the partners was allured by the expected ecstasy of an extramarital affair. In cases of such commitment, it is probably good to recognize that alternatives seldom supply as much joy in the flesh as they might in the mind. The same holds for most material goods. Despite our belief that that next upgrade in houses is going to make us happy forever, research indicates that beyond a certain level (roughtly 70,000 dollars), disposable income and material goods do not provide lasting satisfaction. The second is easier, although it is sometimes difficult to discover a powerful passion to pursue. I prefer to pursue rather abstract goals such as “becoming the best scientist I can be,” since 1) I will never achieve them and 2) I am not sure what it would even mean to achieve them and 3) it makes my goals less about others and more about myself. Certainly, I have to judge my scientific ideas and output by external standards, but my own capacity is something that is not dependent upon others.
And what about the passionate pursuits that drive men and women, like Captain Ahab, to the edge of sanity and often end in death? Despite my general disgust of the selfishness inherent in such a mad and solitary pursuit, I must confess that I find them somewhat inspiring. Some are not born for stillness. As much as I admire the Buddhists and the Stoics, I doubt that satisfaction with the present is something of which most humans are capable. Instead, most of us will live with one eye on the future, expecting that next conquest to calm the importunate cravings of our heart.
Haselton, M. G., & Nettle, D. (2006). The paranoid optimist: An integrative evolutionary model of cognitive biases. Personality and social psychology Review, 10, 47-66.
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134.