A recent survey shows 86% of Americans, when asked about finding happiness, agree with the statement: “To be fulfilled in life, you should pursue the things you desire most.”¹ Here is the key to happiness! Look inside to find yourself, figure out what you desire most, and then find fulfillment in life by pursuing those desires. Go for whatever you want, and never give up!
But two major problems hinder our discovery and pursuit of our deepest desires. First, it’s not as easy as you think to figure out what you really want out of life. It’s too simplistic to think you’ll find fulfillment by chasing what you want the most, because it’s not always easy to figure out what you want the most. Secondly, the deeper you dig into your heart, the more you’ll find desires that don’t align. Sometimes you want things that come into conflict with each other.
What Do You Really Want?
Let’s start with the first problem. How do you come to understand what you really want out of life? People often think that looking into your heart to figure out your desires is the easy part; it’s the pursuit of happiness—of fulfilling your deepest desires—that takes so much energy. But that’s simply not the case. The truth is, you don’t know what will make you happy.
Haven’t you heard about people who chased long and hard after a dream, who ran with single-minded passion to fulfill a deep desire, only to discover a surprising sense of emptiness after they’d reached their goal? People who went after fame or fortune or recognition or pleasure and succeeded in getting whatever it was they wanted—they’ll tell you that it didn’t bring happiness. They’re still unfulfilled. Why do we think it would be different for us? The truth is, we may think we know what we want, that we’ve discovered our deepest desire, only to find out later, when we get it, that we must have really wanted something else all along.
Then there’s the flip side to the same problem. You may convince yourself that you don’t have a particular desire, only to find yourself later in life longing for whatever it is you never wanted.
Imagine a man and woman who get married. They say their deepest desire is for companionship and freedom. They want to enjoy each other’s company as they travel the world, pursue their individual careers, and maintain maximum flexibility in their plans. Kids don’t fit into this picture because having children would force them to settle down and accept certain constraints on their time and would hinder their flexibility. What if, later in life, they regret aspects of their decision to forgo having children? They wonder how their life might have been different, how their marriage might have been different, or what the inconveniences and restricted freedom that comes from parenting might have done for their character. What if, at the end of their life, they look back and find themselves with a desire they didn’t know they had? Did they get what they really wanted, or did their desires deceive them?
Looking into your heart to discover your deepest desires isn’t as easy as you think it is. Your desires will trick you. “Follow your heart,” we say, but we can find case after case where people say their hearts led them astray.
You Can’t Have It All.
That’s what brings us to the second problem with the notion that the way to be fulfilled in life is to pursue whatever you desire the most. Your desires don’t always align. They come into conflict. You want to be the wealthiest and most successful person in the office, and yet you also want plenty of leisure time to spend with your family. You want to eat whatever you want whenever you want, but you also want to enjoy good health for many years to come. You want the freedom and independence that come with money and time, and yet you also want the closeness and love of raising children.
We live in a world that says, Pursue whatever you desire the most! You can have it all. But you can’t. The world doesn’t work that way.
I remember a professor in graduate school telling us on the first day that it may be morally wrong for some of us to get an A in his class. What he meant was this: the demands we would have to meet in order to get an A would require a sacrifice of time that might be better spent in service to our family or in fulfilling other responsibilities. He encouraged us to be satisfied with getting a B if it meant we were keeping our priorities straight. Years later, that counsel still reminds me that it’s impossible to fully escape certain limitations in life. You are not infinite. You have limits. Choosing one path means forsaking all others. Everyone does away with certain desires; the question is, which desires should die, and which ones should live?
It can be stressful to think that choosing one desire means rejecting another. How do you know if you’re making the right decision? We love the idea that we have endless choices before us. It sounds so exciting! But eventually, the normal limits of life will press in. Our choices will become more constrained. We’ll be forced to make certain decisions, and if we don’t—if we try to delay our decisions in order to prolong what some describe as a period in which “no dreams have been permanently dashed, no doors have been permanently closed, every possibility for happiness is still alive”²—we will succumb to paralysis.
Not choosing is itself a choice. Pursuing one desire will require you to say no to another. Everything in us resists closing a door on our future, but without closing one door, we can never truly walk through another.
What if, though, we were not created to chase our own dreams and to pursue our own desires? What if our purpose in life is to chase Someone else’s dream and to pursue the desires of the One who made us? Simply looking inside ourselves to find and follow our desires won’t lead us to happiness. We’ll need, instead, to look up first to the One whose desires for us align with the deepest desires we may not even know we have.
This post was adapted from Rethink Your Self by Trevin Wax.
¹ David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 58.
² Jeffrey Arnett, quoted by Jean M. Twenge, Generation: Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Free Press, 2006), 83.