What we want and what we end up liking when we get it are two different things. They each involve different parts of our brain and different states of mind.
Understanding this difference and bringing more consciousness to what you think you want can save you a huge amount of time, effort… and money.
This last bit is important – the amount of money we spend on things that we want but then end up not liking can be huge. It can make the difference between financial ease and financial stress… between a sense of abundance and a sense of desperation. It can make it possible – or impossible – to save and invest.
I’ve had clients who – though they make plenty of money and live well – end up feeling desperate and on edge financially because they spend more than they make, buying the things that they want.
This doesn’t need to happen.
It’s a simple enough math problem, easy to solve on paper – just don’t spend more than you make, right? But desire is a powerful motivator, and our emotions can mislead us.
What happens is that we focus too much on what we want, thinking (and feeling strongly) it will bring us comfort, relief or happiness. But what we end up with are things we don’t even like very much, plus the significant stress of sustained financial anxiety and regret.
The difference between what we want and what we will like when we get it is what researchers Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson call “miswanting.” Essentially, we have a strong bias toward what we want, and we often aren’t very good at predicting how we’ll feel once we get it.
We focus too much on the wanting part – which is exciting and offers the promise of satisfaction, joy or relief – and not enough on the reality of having whatever it is. When we have something that we’ve wanted, it might be nice, but it’s usually a quieter feeling. It’s not the same as the revved-up feeling that the wanting leads us to expect.
The antidote, as with many things, is to bring awareness to the part of the experience we haven’t been looking at.
For example, my wife and I really want a dog. We both had dogs before we met and for most of our 30-plus years together, and we’ve loved all our dogs. Our last dog passed away about three years ago. Since then, we think and talk often about wanting another dog.
They’re a lot of work. Training them properly, cleaning up, taking the time for walks and building our relationship with a dog – it’s all wonderful and enriching. But only if you’re ready for it and able to commit fully.
In this situation, our kids are grown, we’re able to easily take off on a trip if we want to and we both have lots of other things we’re doing.
We really want a dog, but we also know that we won’t like having a dog right now; the time isn’t right for that commitment. It’s not worth the trade-off.
This is not an easy thing to stay conscious of.
Take a few minutes to think back to some of the things you’ve really wanted and worked to get. I’m sure you’ve been very happy with many of those things once you had them. I’m also certain you really weren’t that happy about some of them.
Focus on those things you’ve been disappointed with and notice how hard it can be to acknowledge that you regret buying them.
We don’t like to feel regret, and we really don’t like to feel shame. When we have a habit of spending more than we should on things we don’t end up liking, regret can grow into shame. And avoiding these emotions can keep us from reassessing our spending habits – intensifying a vicious cycle.
See if you can face the regret or the shame, and take stock of the things you’ve gotten that you weren’t actually very happy with. Be as honest as you can with yourself, but don’t get bogged down in negative feelings about it. Don’t ruminate on it.
Just acknowledge it, learn from it and allow it to be part of your awareness going forward. The more matter of fact this can be, the better.
Credit cards and other easy financing can make it really simple to buy something we want without stopping to consider whether we’ll like it or not. We can end up with something we aren’t happy with, plus the additional burden of a high interest rate on money we wish we hadn’t spent in the first place.
The way to counter this bias is to first take in the information of this column – know that we can want things that we won’t end up actually liking when we get them. We can find it hard to face the disappointment, regret or even shame of that afterward, but facing the truth of it is essential.
Then take a step back from the powerful dopamine-powered urge to get what you want now. Let go of imagining how great it will be, and instead take a step forward in time to when you will have it.
Be sure to include the cost, any interest payments, the work you will have put into it and the things you’d have to sacrifice in order to obtain it. Also, purposefully go against the momentum of your rosiest scenario and look at what will be more difficult once you have it. What will you be trading for this new thing that you want?
Distance yourself from your emotions, and do the hard work of bringing the potential downside into consciousness – and do the honest calculation about the trade-offs.
Then decide whether it’s really worth the trade.
I don’t mean to be a killjoy here. You may find that you’re pretty sure you’ll be really happy with your decision to buy something. Great!
Achieving what we want and like can be a tremendous addition to our quality of life. But if we invest in things we don’t end up liking, that can cost us. Some honest reflection that goes against the current of excitement beforehand can make a big difference.