Many years ago, when I was a young psychiatry resident, I went through a period of great confusion, in my personal life and as a neophyte professional. A trusted friend, a psychologist who was older and wiser than me, looked me straight in the eyes and demanded my full attention before asking me, in a tone fraught with meaning, “What do you want?” I sat there in stunned silence, my mind suddenly clear of the jumble of racing thoughts that had prompted her question. Instead, I had only one thought, echoing in my mind and making my head hurt: What, indeed, did I want?
Now, decades later, I often think of that moment and smile at the simplicity of the question and the obviousness of the answer. But it took me years of trial and error to really grasp the import of the question. What I want depends on the unstated part of the question: Right now, in this moment? Or, in the near future? Or, in the long run?
For example, if I am at a restaurant surrounded by people I enjoy and having a grand time, do I really want to order another martini? It would taste good, and the rush would certainly feel good. But, past experience tells me I would not sleep well that night, and would feel less than my best the next day. In the long run, if I regularly doubled my alcohol intake, I might put on some unwanted pounds and suffer other negative consequences. I have never regretted NOT having a second martini, but have often regretted having one. So the answer is obvious: No, I do not want another martini, thank you.
Little decisions mount up to big ones. And big ones, of course, may come at us all at once, as in “Do I want chemotherapy? Do I want to marry this person? Do I want a divorce? Do I want to adopt a baby?” I contend the same three parts apply: immediate gratification, short range implications, long term likelihoods. We may have to delay the decision pending some research, or the counsel of others.
What makes this point worth writing about is that so often, in my psychiatric practice and in my life, I have seen people fooled into thinking what they WANT is immediate gratification. The denial of that (saying “No, thanks” to the offer of a second martini) is not seen as what they want, but as what they SHOULD do, or what they KNOW, but not what they WANT. That, to me, is ridiculous, because there is no reason to define what we want, really-honestly-deeply want, as simply what is tempting in the moment.
Stating our decisions as what we WANT is a way of taking full responsibility for ourselves. That is why I say so often in this blog that the secret to happy, healthy living (at least that part we control) is re-framing our thinking from what we should do, to what we want to do — in the moment, for the short term, and for the long run. Striking a balance among the three versions of “want” can be tricky; no one promised it would be easy. Do you WANT that bag of french fries, or don’t you? What about that puppy?