Enjoy ≠ want, but why should wants submit?

There are things that we try to get. There are things that we enjoy when we have them. There’s overlap,  but they aren’t the same. When people notice they aren’t the same, they often try to change or override their wants – or more often others’ wants – in the direction of reflecting what’s actually enjoyable*.

This observed disconnect seems for instance to underlie many people’s support for government interference into personal choices and markets, indifference to taking money from the wealthy, advice about personal choices, and the ethical position which says that if a person expects a lifetime of pain, yet wants to live regardless, it is still a good thing if they die.

An argument I’ve heard sometimes for this last manifestation in hedonistic utilitarianism is this: on introspection, it seems that enjoyment is the only thing that could be valuable. Since we should try to get things that are valuable, we should try to get that, and forget the things we thought we wanted. We were either wrong about our wants or just downright silly.

This seems to use a trick though, of only sometimes assuming the identity of different definitions of value, ‘that which feels good now’ and ‘that which we want’. In working out intuitively what could possibly be valuable, the user of this reasoning presumably considers what seems good now – really what is meant is something like ‘the only thing which seems good at the time is enjoyment’. But then the argument goes on to implicitly assume ‘value’ as in what we enjoy is equivalent to ‘value’ as in what we seek, so as to conclude that it’s good to seek enjoyable things. But if from the outset we used ‘value’ to mean both to what we like currently and what we want, ‘things we want’ must be another contender for what intuitively might be inherently valuable. If we are going by intuitions, ‘we should try to get what we want to get’ looks far more self evident than ‘we should try to get what we enjoy’.

If there is a disconnect between wants and enjoyment, there are three possible resolutions. First, we could leave it be and believe simultaneously that it’s good to pursue what we want, and good to have what we enjoy, without them having to be the same thing. After all, we see empirically that wants and enjoyment aren’t the same – why assume they should be? This seems silly, but won’t go into arguments. Secondly we could do the usual thing where we try to make people pursue things they actually enjoy. Thirdly we could go the other way and try to enjoy the things we naturally pursue.

For example people often say that money doesn’t make us happy, and therefore we should stop seeking it. However we could equally well just try to enjoy being rich more. That doesn’t sound obviously harder, but is rarely suggested. Perhaps ‘what we enjoy’ seems more like an end goal and ‘what we seek’ seems instrumental, and in theory it seems more sensible to change instrumental things than final goals (why would you change a final goal, but to achieve your final goals?). In practice though, we are mixed up monkeys with plenty of inbuilt urges, tendencies, and pleasures in no neat hierarchy. So why should wants submit to pleasures?

Presumably this  has been discussed at length before somewhere – if you know where, please tell me.

*In this post ‘enjoyment’ refers to any positive mental state.

10 responses to “Enjoy ≠ want, but why should wants submit?

  1. We either enjoy now or infinitely seek what we want. As I see it, enjoyment is different from wants as it is positioned in the present and wants are positioned in the future. Enjoyment is knowledge of what is satisfying and wants are the seeking of another to be probed for its possible enjoyment.

    On average however, enjoyment is all that counts. The whole problem of wants only comes into play due to the breakup of enjoyment and its underlying necessities. We know that to enjoy we have to survive, thus to survive is an indirect goal that is ultimately based on our desire to enjoy. Value arises for slightly different reasons. It also exist due to a breakup of enjoyment, but not because of the absence of circumstances but our inherently adaption to the causes of enjoyment. That is, what is enjoyable now won’t prolong the same amount of excitement over time. Thus we seek more of the same or different causes of enjoyment to reach the same or higher levels of excitement. We then value causes of enjoyment based on their ability to make us happy, which drives the notion of value.

    I’m trying to make sense of that all my life. Posted a comment loosely based on the same problem here before. I have posted a updated version here, I’d love to hear what you think:

  2. I know nothing from “hedonistic utilitarianism,” whatever that may be. Nor do I understand “Enjoy ≠ want.” Even less clear is your image of wants submitting. Wants submit to what? When? How?

    Nonetheless I suspect there’s something in there that would benefit from clarification. I suggest this:

    Each of us has a set steady-state of (call it) satisfaction. Some might call it a steady enjoyment level, which doesn’t change much over long periods — months or years.

    This likely results from the well-known capacity of nervous tissue to *adapt* to change. Neurons tick over at a modest level until something in their environment changes. The change kicks up their activity. If the environmental change persists, however, the neural activity quite quickly diminishes to its base level. The neurons are said to *adapt* to the new situation. They respond to change, but not to steady states.

    People adapt even to the most extreme changes in their situations without much change to their average level of happiness. Even people who lose a limb, or far worse, surprisingly return to their old level of enjoyment after time. They *adapt.*

    What’s disappointing is that our nervous systems adapt to good things as well as bad. We look forward to winning a prize but unfortunately after the initial rush of excitement the nervous system settles down. We adapt to our new wealth, or whatever, and life becomes just as satisfying (or boring) as it was before. Nothing has changed. We have adapted.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek pleasant changes. We just shouldn’t expect them to alter our levels of enjoyment forever. Enjoyment always subsides.

    I think that addresses some of your concerns. But you advert to other things I can’t deal with here.

  3. The fact that we want things other than what we enjoy is only one of the reasons we don’t enjoy what happens. Another is that we don’t always get what we want. If we could choose what we enjoy we should prefer to choose to enjoy what we will get, rather than just what we want to get.

    • Could you name anything one wants while being aware that it is not what one enjoys or beneficial towards enjoyment? The pursuit of enjoyment does not have to be an additive operation but can be the substraction of unpleasing states of sensual perception as that of pain or the fulfillment of wants.

  4. How much of the disconnect do you think is due to people spending time pursuing things that many not make them happy, but simply keep them from becoming unhappy?

    If someone decides to lose weight (or simply stay in shape), finally reaching a suitable BMI or target weight might not make them happy. Its just that putting the weight on again would make them unhappy.

    I’m sure there are far better examples than this (university degrees? redecorating living rooms?), but sometimes it seems that people pursue things that don’t end up making them happy, but might be important in maintaining a base line of contentment. You mentioned enjoying being rich, and there is a that oft repeated stat about diminishing returns when looking at how salary affects happiness. Perhaps bumping up from 50 grand to 60 a year doesn’t make you happy, but if your still on 50 and your friends make 60…..

    Depending on how much of people’s happiness (or base line of contentment) you think is derived through comparisons with others, perhaps lots of the things people pursue that don’t end up improving their total happiness are things that they need to match others in their peer group. Preventing them from becoming unhappy due to not measuring up.

  5. Also, don’t people sometimes have convoluted motivations for trying to get things?. If someone is trying move from a salesman to a branch manager (been watching the The Office US) they might be going for it in order to win respect and admiration. When they get the job, it does not make them happy because respect and admiration are not forthcoming.

    Then maybe they want a better car, because other managers have better cars. But the only reason they now want a car is to fit into the role of a manager which they only wanted in order to win admiration and respect which they still don’t have.

  6. I wrote about this a while ago. My basic theory, I don’t know how true it is, is that what we want and what we enjoy will tend to converge over time. If we find we don’t enjoy what we want, we’ll tend to stop wanting that thing, and if we enjoy something we don’t want, eventually we’ll start wanting it.


  7. Good post. I’m guessing (although IANAEB) that the existence of wants probably proceeded enjoyment, too… goal seeking seems more fundamental than positive reinforcement.

    That’s not to say I necessarily think we should prioritise wants.

  8. Well, it seems that most of our actual decisions are made on the basis of ‘want’ rather than ‘enjoy’, especially before we’ve realized there’s a difference.

    Considering this, and considering that we do strongly want to enjoy ourselves (and predictably find this want frustrated by the way we usually pursue it), erring more on the side of what we know we enjoy seems like an all-around win (on the margin).

  9. I don’t think wants should submit to pleasures, and I don’t think anyone has to pursue pleasure at all. I guess that people’s wishes might tend to include pleasure, but not necessarily as their most important wish.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.