Skip links


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Oct-2006

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 28

Wordcount: 2137

In search of a cure for paradise syndrome


By Elizabeth Farrelly

Hungry with desire, we reach for more of what we think will make us happy – sex, food, power, stuff – only to find we’re hungrier still.

“You can’t always get what you wantBut if you try sometimes, well you might findYou get what you need.”

(The Rolling Stones, 1968)

DESIRE IS A fundamental force of life; probably the fundamental force. Pretty much everything we do is desire-driven, whether at appetite level – food, love, money, sex or power – or on a higher, more abstract plane, like the desire for truth, or order, or god. Desire, as American philosopher William Irvine notes, “animates the world”.

It also animates our mythic lives. From Luke Skywalker to Philip Mar-lowe, from Harry Potter to Captain Ahab to Becky Sharp to Siddhartha, the character must want something. That is the essence of plot, just as it’s the essence of life.

In evolutionary terms, of course, there is a clear “reason” for desire. Within the environment in which humanity has evolved, whoever gets the most sex, or food, or stuff, is likely to be a successful spreader of the seed.

Now, though, that’s all changed. Although for most of us – perhaps even Mick Jagger – satisfaction is increasingly achievable, the desires themselves show no sign of waning. On the contrary, our desires have become, if anything, more voracious. So that now, combined with our satisfaction skills and the biomass of our planet-smothering species, the very desires that once enhanced our survival now threaten it. Our response? Have another daiquiri.

In part, this is palliative: we consume precisely because the implications of our consumption are so terrifying. In part, it’s cultural, with contemporary culture insisting that satisfying our every desire is not just a right but a kind of duty. “Buy it” (the superannuation, the lingerie, the holiday) urge the ads, because you deserve it, because you’re worth it, but mainly because you want it. We have reduced Robert Louis Stevenson’s “great task of happiness” to a duty of instant self-gratification. And in part, desire is simply what we do; desire is our motive force and our raison d’etre. We are because we want, as well as vice versa.

Of course, we sometimes desire what is good, or good for us. More commonly, though, and often more intensely, we desire what is bad, or bad for us. Without the seven deadly sins, and particularly without the desire sins (gluttony, envy, lust, avarice), civilisations would shrivel and die. Imagine starting a business, a garden or a family without desire. Imagine writing a love song, running a marathon or robbing a bank without desire. Everything we do is based on desiring something.

Mostly, we don’t notice it. Desire is so ubiquitous it makes no more than a constant background hum. Only when desire intensifies into a craving, in particular for some forbidden pleasure, like chocolate, opium or sex – only, in other words, when we struggle against desire – do we become fully conscious of its presence.

Either way, desire is our driver and navigator, both. So while absence of desire may be a Zen ideal, it is also one of the things we fear most about age and sickness; the end of desire seems like the end of life.

Hence Dylan Thomas’s injunction to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Without desire, there is no reason to get out of bed – or indeed, to get into bed in the first place. As Irvine notes, “banish desire and you get a world of frozen beings with no desire to live and no desire to die”.

If desire drives us, what drives desire? Pleasure, in a word. Desire can probably be defined as the will to pleasure, and the recoil from pain. Irvine tells of people who suffer “crises of desire”, being either temporarily or permanently abandoned by the capacity not to feel pleasure, but to take pleasure in pleasure. That is, to desire pleasure.

Irvine offers three categories of such crisis. There are those who simply lose desire (writer Larry McMurtry, for example, was devastated to find, after major heart surgery, that he had lost the desire to read, which had been until then the defining desire of his life); those who (like Siddhartha) become disgusted by their own desires and renounce them; and those who, like Tolstoy at the height of his success, continue to feel desire but feel simultaneously its futility and simply stop caring whether their desires are fulfilled.

Desire itself, then, is something we need and something we desire. So much so that, even while we have become adept at satisfying our desires, we have become equally adept at sustaining those same desires, well past necessity, justification or even decency. We have become, in a word, insatiable. This puts the focus on what we desire, how we desire it and whether, as a species, we can begin to direct these things for our own collective benefit.

We are hardwired not just to desire, but to presume a causal link from desire to happiness. Gratified desire (goes the tacit post-hippie mantra) equals pleasure, pleasure equals happiness and happiness, we have come to believe, equals, well, everything. What else is there?

In fact, each step in this chain of reasoning is demonstrably false.

The past century of child-rearing offers an object lesson, as the idea of original sin is gradually replaced by the far more dangerous, if unarticulated, belief in original virtue; a “just add water” approach to parenting that has largely replaced discipline with gratification.

Between 1914 and 1942, as Martha Wolfenstein and Margaret Mead found in the 1950s, attitudes to infant-rearing shifted from seeing overfeeding as a constant danger to regarding the child’s natural appetites as an adequate self-regulator. In 1947, Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care advised the parent to “trust yourself” and enjoy. As those babies, the boomers, have come to maturity, parenting manuals have typically advised that babies be fed on demand and never smacked or criticised. Parents have been left holding the carrot, but no stick.

The parent’s primary job, it has been argued, is to build the child’s self-esteem, rather than to teach skills that might earn or justify such esteem. This has helped to build a society in which near-perpetual pleasure is both the norm and the expectation; where pain is an affront and to have an unsatisfied yearning seems almost an offence against nature.

Take, for example, the recent furore over End Times, an exhibition of photographs of children crying by US photographer Jill Greenberg. For her crime of giving children lollipops and taking them away to generate a few seconds of tears, Greenberg has been accused of child abuse and of inflicting permanent emotional damage. Why? Because, critics say, children should not be made to do anything they don’t like.

“Although the children are not sexualised, I consider what she is doing child pornography of the worst kind,” blogged Thomas Hawke. Of course, Hawke himself could be working for Greenberg’s publicity agent. But the mere fact the story ran on every major news outlet in the Western world points to a hidden acceptance of the idea that negative emotions of any kind are somehow unnatural and damaging.

And so we watch our children become monsters. We talk tough love and limit-setting, we adore the supernanny for daring to restore the idea of discipline. But on every street corner, every beach, every bus, we see parents acting as their children’s servants, letting the kids take the lead.

And yet, it doesn’t work. We always knew that having what you want didn’t make you likeable. Now we know it doesn’t make you happy, either. The stats are in: Western happiness has declined precisely in tandem with the rise of affluence. Martin Seligman was one of the first to note, in the 1970s, the West’s depression epidemic, stemming from the constant disappointment of increased, affluence-based expectations. US sociologist Barry Schwarz notes that America’s “happiness quotient” has been dropping for more than a generation, and Cambridge academic Avner Offer notes the same phenomenon in Britain, saying that “since the Second World War, and especially since the 1970s, self-reported ‘happiness’ has languished … or has even declined”.

That is the “paradox of happiness”. The things we think will make us happy don’t and that makes us want them all the more.

It has a name. Paradise syndrome (as lifted from a 1968 episode of Star Trek) is the severe depression caused by having it all. Martin Amis’s novel Night Train, an exploration of paradise syndrome, focuses on the suicide of the beautiful, brilliant and beloved Jennifer Rockwell, who bails out precisely because the perfection of her life has become intolerable.

This is an extreme example of what US psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson call miswanting. Miswanting is what it sounds like: the tendency to want all the wrong things, wrong not just morally or environmentally, but even in their capacity to deliver the satisfaction they promise. Based on an “incorrect theory of what will make us happy”, miswanting occurs because we are hardwired to mispredict both the intensity and the duration of our emotional response to getting what we desire. We think things will make us happier than they do, for longer than they do.

Gilbert and Wilson’s studies show that even when people accurately assess the kinds of things that make them happy (social rather than physical factors in housing, for example) they tend not to make decisions accordingly, focusing on factors that are more immediate or intense (more “salient”) rather than the ones that they know really matter.

Miswanting combines with habituation – our primate tendency to acclimatise readily to particular pleasures, or particular levels of pleasure – to keep us in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. This in turn locks us into what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”, a constant round of wanting and getting, fuelled by dissatisfaction and disappointment. Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman extends this idea into the “satisfaction treadmill”, which involves habituation not just to particular pleasures, but to particular levels of pleasure.

Modern hedonics divide desires into “instrumental” (the new Beemer) and “terminal” (the happiness we expect from it). Whereas our terminal desires are hardwired and largely involuntary, our instrumental desires are front-brain. So the BMWs and Seychelles holidays are our conscious attempts to appease, like idiot villagers, the wrathful god of our unconscious. Miswanting derives from our conscious mind’s failure to predict accurately what will keep our unconscious satisfied.

This offers hope, because consciousness is at least educable. US psychologist Tim Kasser has studied what he calls “the chains of materialism”. He lists the ways in which materialistic values diminish our wellbeing: by sustaining our insecurity, keeping us on the treadmill, disrupting our relationships and infringing personal freedom. People with materialistic values, he found, are more likely to have death dreams, more likely to watch a lot of television, more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and debilitating self-consciousness.

Much of recent psychology has been devoted to proving what we already knew. In this case, that money can’t buy happiness.

If not money, then what? The British philosopher, novelist and medic Raymond Tallis postulates what he calls “the fourth hunger” (the other three being for survival, for pleasure and for recognition). The fourth hunger, generated by our nagging consciousness of the unbridgeable gap between our fantasy lives and reality, is that craving for connection, for seeing clearly, touching it, being there that we notice most when our other hungers have been satisfied. And yet, Tallis says, the most common response to the fourth hunger is “increasingly frenzied activity, usually involving consumption of goods, substances, entertainment or one another. More cars, bargain breaks, Stella Artois, orgasms etc.”

This is classic miswanting, since none of these offerings can appease this particular god. What can, though, is art. For Tallis, the best treatment for this “wound in human consciousness” lies in music, painting, literature and, at its finest, philosophy.

Art, unlike “the swooning egocentricity of closed-off uncaring hedonism … from which we awake to bitter solitude”, opens us to reality. This is promising ecologically, as well as spiritually, since it not only offers an alternative to our increasingly routine orgies of consumption, but encourages us to find, awaken and employ our latent creative powers to benefit both ourselves and the planet. So many of our desires, we will then start to see, are more enjoyable when unsatisfied. Maybe, we’ll realise, Jagger’s Satisfaction was less a lament than a hymn to the limitless spring of creative hunger. I can’t get no satisfaction. Thank God.


Illustration: Simon Letch


Join the Discussion