Book review: On desire

I recently read On Desire : Why We Want What We Want , by William B. Irvine. The subject is related to happiness, because getting (or not getting) what we want or think we want changes how we feel about life. Roughly the first half to two-thirds of the book is an examination of how desire works, from a psychological and evolutionary point of view. Irvine discusses the role of emotion and intellect in desire and decision-making; he talks about the unconscious origins of many desires, for example. I’m fascinated by the role that unconscious processing plays in our lives, so I was interested in this Bertrand Russell quote:

“…the discovery of our own motives can only be made by the same process by which we discover other people’s, namely, the process of observing our actions and inferring the desire which could prompt them.”

I’m intrigued by the idea that to some extent we don’t really know all that’s going on in our minds and have to watch our own behavior to see what it is we really want. This jibes with the idea that when mental processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, our conscious selves will make up some kind of story to explain the results. (E.g., see Michael Gazzaniga’s interpreter theory; this article describes some work he did with split-brain patients that led him to develop this theory.) Russell’s point was that we lie to ourselves about what we want, even going so far as to develop false belief systems to kid ourselves.

Irvine emphasizes that emotion is crucial to desire. The intellect can form desires on its own (I can decide to raise my right arm for no particular reason, for example) but those desires don’t have anything like the power of desires based on feelings. The role of the intellect is mainly to figure out ways to satisfy desires that come from the emotions. (Irvine says that’s not just the role of the intellect in desire; that’s the reason the intellect developed in the first place: not so we can rise above our biological urges, but so we can more effectively fulfill them.) And while we may have a hard time dealing with our emotions and the yearnings that they inspire, these yearnings are what give us direction, define our goals, and give meaning to our lives.

The problem for most of us comes from the way we are apparently wired to want things that won’t actually make us happy (as Levine puts it, to “miswant”), and from the way we adapt to the good things we have so that they no longer satisfy us as much as they did when we first got them. Levine talks about the evolutionary history that might be behind this, and also about our biological incentive systems, or BISes, which reward us for doing things that enhance our chances for survival and reproduction, and punish us for doing things detrimental to our chances. I particularly enjoyed Irvine’s speculations about how the BIS shapes human nature, and whether slight differences in each individual’s BIS are the basis of personality differences. (E.g., extroverts might have BISes that are quicker to provide pleasant feelings when they interact with others and unpleasant feelings when they don’t, whereas introverts gain more pleasure from solitude.) This says something about the limits people will run into in trying to change their preferred behavior.

The human BIS is not perfect; in particular, we can cheat the system (e.g., certain drugs will give us a reward that we didn’t earn) and the rules are out of date (the reward for eating fatty and sweet foods likely made more sense when food was harder to come by). The imperfections make it hard for us to live peacefully with our BISes. Irvine says:

This, in a nutshell, is the human condition: because we have a BIS, we are forced to live under an incentive system that we did not devise, that we cannot escape, and whose incentives not only aren’t calculated to induce us to have happy, meaningful lives but will, if we respond to them, keep us in a state of dissatisfaction.

So in roughly the last half of the book, he discusses a number of different approaches to dealing with desire: religious (focusing mainly on Christianity and Buddhism, as I recall), philosophical (e.g., Stoicism, Epicureanism), and what he calls eccentric (espoused by individuals like Thoreau, for example). He does a decent job of discussing prayer, meditation, and specific thoughts and behaviors that people have used to handle their desires, and he talks about a few desires in particular–how some religious communities deal with sexual desire or greed for property. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed in this section of the book. He talked mostly about how people deal with a desire once they believe that it is harmful for some reason, and I was hoping for more about how people decide which desires to follow and which to deny. The book says at one point that life is about more than just doing whatever your BIS tells you to do, and certainly endless license is no recipe for happiness. (I recently read Tom Wolfe’s latest, I am Charlotte Simmons, and his descriptions of young people heedlessly following wherever their BISes take them does not make a pretty picture.) But on the other hand, there are evolutionary reasons for our desires, and if they are the thing that gives life meaning, as Irvine says earlier in the book, then what I’m most interested in is the subtle, shifting balance between enjoying the pleasures that are to be found in being human, and protecting our long-term interests by using those pleasures intelligently. I wish there had been more about that in this book, but all in all, I enjoyed it and picked up some interesting new ideas from it. It’s not a self-help book by any means, but it does contain some advice for dealing with desire; the advice is generic enough that putting it into practice takes some thought, so perhaps the biggest contribution to happiness that this book can make is increasing our understanding of how our desires work–as the subtitle says, understanding “why we want what we want.”

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your review. It was quite the synopsis. I was wondering if you have read anything better on the subject of desire and, if even so, would you recommend this book. My reasons for reading this book would be mostly philosophical, I have read Epictetus and am starting Lucretius “Nature of Things,” though I am one of those that would agree that the true purpose of philosophy is self benefit. Anyway, tell me what you think plz.

Comments are closed.