Attachment is inherent to our nature, as is the desire to have pleasant experiences. We are attached to feeling good, comfortable, and secure and to things we think will bring us happiness. Attachment is the emotional dependence we put on situations, objects, or people. Strong attachments come in many forms—including overindulgence in or pursuit of food and drink, sex, power, fame, even principles or ideas—and can manifest in potentially harmful ways, such as gambling and addiction.
Living without desire is unrealistic. There is nothing wrong with wanting, but when we are too attached to our desires, we risk becoming captive to them. An attachment to pleasure, for example, becomes an obstacle when it continually compels us to chase it, even when it may be unwise or unhealthy to do so. So, while pleasure is a good thing, these powerful forces—attachment and desire—can cloud our reality. Reality is always changing and includes a mix of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. When we pursue desire to the exclusion of reality, suffering can happen, and happiness may become harder to attain.
When the fulfillment of a desire is obstructed or when what we want slips out of our grasp, it may give rise to fear and anger. Reducing our dependence on desired outcomes is critical. We can pursue our desires, but we must be able to drop them when needed. We can embrace our desires, but we must not be bound by them. Our desires should not run the show.
Controlling the Desire for Control
In our desire to control the external, we may lose control over the internal. The more we want to control things, others, or situations, the angrier we may become when things don’t turn out the way we expected. If we understand that our desire for control is the source of our anger and a hindrance to our happiness, we can change our perspective on desire. We can aspire to reduce our need to control situations or other people and accept the feelings that result from not getting what we want.
If we set our expectations as a “wish list” rather than a “need list,” we may experience less anger.
As human beings, we cannot avoid having expectations. Expectation is the gap or discrepancy between what we have and what we want. With expectation comes disappointment, which may lead to anger. By having expectations, we give power away. Accordingly, to reduce disappointment and anger, adjusting our expectations and decreasing our attachment to them is imperative. If we set our expectations as a “wish list” rather than a “need list,” we may experience less anger.
If we want to be empowered, we have to own our expectations and the choices we make as well as the feelings that result from those choices. No one can make us feel angry; our expectations lead to anger. Again, expectations are a part of life, but it is up to us as to whether we are attached to them.
Reversing Desire and Achieving Happiness
In their book The Tools, Phil Stutz and Barry Michels describe a method to overcome or “reverse” desire. The goal is to embrace the opposite of our attachment tendency. Instead of clinging to our desire, we welcome pain so we can continue moving toward our goals. Once we accept pain, we notice that our state of feeling moves from attachment (clinging energy) to non-attachment (flowing energy), a state in which we are free and open to all experiences. This state of accepting whatever comes is, in a word, happiness.
I want to end with a word from Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Buddhist philosopher and peace activist. His powerful quote summarizes this article: “Letting go [of attachment, desire, and expectations] gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”
Stutz, P., & Michels, B. (2013). The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower—and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Motion. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
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