Why People Want What They Cannot Have

A reader wrote in and asked, “Why is what you cannot have often more appealing than what you can have?”

Wanting what you cannot have is the easy way out. For some, fantasy is preferable to putting the work into attaining something actually achievable. You might have heard the phrase, “Don’t sacrifice the good to the perfect.” In a similar respect you might say, “Don’t sacrifice the attainable for the sake of the unattainable.” In other words, don’t waste time and thoughts on something you’ll never attain and in the process fail to attain something else of achievable value.

For other people, life is a pretty hopeless place, and yearning for the unattainable is better than nothing. “I can’t have anything I want of value,” the person feels. “So at least I have my daydreams.” Actually, you need a “can do” attitude in order to get through life, and to have a meaningful life. A “can do” attitude refers not to the belief that literally anything is possible, but instead to the belief that values of some kind are possible. “I can’t have this particular thing that I want. But I’m still capable of wanting other things.” This belief is part of the “can do” attitude. Many people lack a “can do” attitude not because they’re lazy nor necessarily even feel hopeless, but because they assume they only want a narrow number of things. But the capacity for human valuing is potentially limitless, if you let yourself.

You’ve heard the saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” In other words, your neighbor has a better lawn than you do; or your neighbor has a better life than you do. While lawns can be easily evaluated, lives are much harder to know and judge. Sometimes people seem happy who really aren’t. More often, the people who seem happy are happy, but you’re not with them all the time. It’s impossible to compare your own life — with which you live 24/7 — with the life of another. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re two different contexts.

You’ll always know the precise context of your own life much better than the life of anyone else. That’s why comparison is usually a waste of time and often a downer, a downer based on inaccuracy. It’s one thing to say, “I like what Joe did in his life. I’m inspired. I think I’ll do the same.” This is reasonable and often helpful. It’s another thing to say, “I want Joe’s life. I resent him for his life, and I wish I had it.”

Some people believe that envy is evil, and that one shouldn’t have envious thoughts because it makes you a bad person. It is true that envy is irrational and unproductive. But it’s an error more than an evil. Or, more precisely, it’s an error that — left uncorrected — will turn into evil.

The error of envy is rooted in wanting what you cannot have. Not everyone who wants what he cannot have necessarily becomes chronically envious; but everyone who’s chronically envious has that mistaken thinking as its source. The problem with envy is not that it’s evil and “selfish.” Envy is actually self-destructive. Once envy comes on the scene as a consistent attribute of someone’s personality, as a chronic emotion and problem, then self-damage has already been inflicted through erroneous thinking. The only way to get over the envy is to get to the source of the problem, which is wanting what you cannot have, and mistakenly believing that you’re incapable of valuing and pursuing other goals. In a sense, you must be selfish to get over your envy. You have to willing to believe, ‘My life is special and valuable. I can and should make my own life its own version of success and happiness.’ This gets the focus off other people’s lives and to your own, where it belongs.

Sometimes people want what they think they cannot have, but they really could have it. Maybe they cannot have the thing they literally want, but they could want something else like it. For example, you can’t have Mary’s husband if you like and admire him. But you can have a man like him, if you’re willing to persist in finding one.

You have to believe in your values. You have to believe, “I can find that thing that I want.” No, believing does not make it so, and wishing will not make it so. But believing is a necessary precondition of attaining anything valuable. You really do have to believe, because the only rational alternative is to give up. Once you’ve given up, it’s certain you won’t attain what you gave up. As long as you don’t give up, there are always possibilities in life.