Is Controlling Our desires a Key to Happiness?

john stuart mill and desire

John Stuart Mill said “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than seeking to satisfy them.”

This seemed odd for Mill to say this. Mill was perhaps the most influential 19th century philosopher. His best known works are “On Liberty” and “Utilitarianism.” He was a strong proponent of individual liberty. Individual speech and actions should be constrained only when necessary to protect others. Happiness and pleasure is life’s purpose. Moral actions are those producing the greatest happiness.

John Stuart Mill portrait
John Stuart Mill

I expected Mill to favor satisfying desires. Doesn’t satisfying desire cause pleasure and make us happy? Isn’t liberty freedom to satisfy our desires? His quote suggests the opposite. Why? All desires are not the same. There are higher and lower order desires and they have different effects on happiness. There is the distinction between self imposed and state imposed constraints. You can advocate freedom realizing some will use that freedom to destroy their lives. Finally, there is the distinction between limiting and eliminating desire. You might partially satisfy a desire rather than avoid it altogether.

Pleasures are not equal

I found clues to Mill’s views on desire by reading more about his life and philosophy. Mill does not treat pleasures equally. He argues that some pleasures are better than others and more worthy of pursuing. He distinguishes between quality and quantity. We should seek better pleasure, not more pleasure.

This quote explains his view:

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

Mill argues it is better to have unsatisfied higher desires that fulfilled lower desires.  Limiting pursuit of lower pleasures helps us pursue higher pleasures which leads to greater happiness.

the stoic virtue of moderation

Further insight comes from the Stoics. Mill knew Stoic philosophy well. Mill thought the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and well known Stoic, were “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.” The Stoics taught freedom from passion by following reason. Virtues are essential to Stoic philosophy and their prescription for a happy life. Moderation (discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control) is one of four basic Stoic virtues. Mill’s comments about limiting our desires may reflect his Stoic views. We can gain freedom from passions as we can let reason guide our life. By practicing the virtues of moderation and discipline we can avoid wasting time with base pleasures and focus instead on being virtuous.

why we have desires

It helps understanding where many basic desires come from. Desires are natural as is the pleasure of fulfilling them. The drive for food, sex, recognition, status, etc. are all hard-wired in our DNA. We don’t have to think to have desires. People don’t need to be taught to like eating or to want sex. We are born with an innate need or desire to eat, procreate, and survive in a social environment. These desires have helped us succeed as a species. The behaviors motivated by these desires are evolutionary adaptions. For most of human existence desires worked and our species has flourished. Yet in modern society, these human tendencies have some clear downsides.

why limiting desires leads to happiness

Having the means to fulfill desires creates problems.  We feel hunger and we eat. Through much of human history starvation was a frequent threat. Now most people can fully satisfy their hunger anytime. Consequently, we eat too much for own good. The same logic applies to other desires. Sex in moderation is healthy and leads to happiness and a fulfilled life. But unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure can destroy relationships, lead to addiction, and divert attention more important pursuits. Desire for status and recognition motivates us to work hard and be constructive. But unbridled desire for status causes harm as seen too often in political leaders. Mill is not saying we should eliminate desire altogether. He is likely saying we should limit desires.

Further support from Epicurus and Seneca

The idea of limiting desire to further happiness goes back at least to Epicurus. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341 BC to 270 BC. He is quoted as saying: “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

The Roman Seneca, a well know Stoic and tutor to Emperor Nero, is reported to have said “The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.” Seneca was a wealthy and powerful man and may have come to realize through experience that fulfilling his desires did not lead to happiness.

Wise words in Anna Karenina

I came across this in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” while trying to fill the many gaps in my education by reading the great Russian authors:

Vronsky (Anna’s lover) meanwhile, in spite of the complete fulfilment of what he had so long desired, was not completely happy. He soon felt that the realization of his longing gave him only one grain of the mountain of bliss he had anticipated. That realization showed him the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.

There is lots of wisdom in that last line. How helpful it would have been to discuss that paragraph in literature class. It might have prevented me from making a few mistakes in life.

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