Contentment is hard to come by — and this is why.
"You always want what you can't have" is a phrase most often repeated by people trying to make a point that you should be satisfied with what you already have, rather than trying to attain more for fulfillment. After all, if you're just looking to the next big thing, you'll miss what's right in front of your eyes ... or so every romantic comedy ever has taught us.
Turns out, those people are wrong, at least to some extent.
Studies have shown that it's not actually the achievement of goals that drives people onward — it's the desire to seek out bigger and better things. Turns out, wanting what you can't have might actually be the goal to a happier life.
How many times have you been told "no," "you can't," or that you aren't allowed to do something? When we're children, a natural reaction to this is a temper tantrum — arms flailing, lungs emptying, eyes leaking tears. We want to do whatever they won't allow us.
But when you're older, you find ways to deal with these upsets discreetly. A teenager might sneak out after curfew; a young adult might just ignore all rationality and do what they're told not to do anyway, which is why no one likes to hear "I told you so."
Learning consequences from our actions — and gaining wisdom from experience after we've messed up — is something that's bred into us from a young age. But as you grow, so does your need to explore and understand the world around you. And being told that you can't have something just makes it that much more desirable.
Why? Because it's sparked a little something within you called curiosity. And once your brain latches onto that urge, it's hard to get it to let go.
Curiosity is the single part of the human brain that propels us forward. It's what makes us choose things for ourselves — both stupid and incredibly smart — and guides us to new discoveries in personal and professional aspects of our lives. It's also what gives us the animalistic desire to follow said curiosity down whatever dark alleyway it leads us.
According to Jack Panskepp, the author of Affective Neuroscience, the reason that people keep exploring and trying to experience everything life has to offer is because it's bred into our very DNA. Every mammal has the same need to seek out circumstances in their environment and explore whatever will make their chances of survival better. Since it's linked to our reward-pleasure centers, your brain actually rewards you for pursuing whatever you're curious about.
So, wanting to get to know a new person, getting that job promotion, finding new music or exploring different areas of the world is actually so you can feel the thrill of the hunt, not the completion of a task. It's why putting the puzzle together feels better than staring at it when it's all done.
When you've reached your goal, it's over. But in the process of achieving it, you feel the happiest.
Pursuing the next big thing in your life can actually make you happier, because you're moving forward and striving to attain something. In our very goal-oriented and reward-focused brains, that's the thing that keeps us smiling.
The need to quest and pursue things in our lives is a natural human inclination, but can often come with unsavory consequences. Wanting more, desiring a better outcome, and trying to make things more beneficial for you is actually more rewarding than achieving those desires.
This is the same reason that people who win the lottery can be content playing for nothing after years, but don't gain any happiness once they've actually won that big jackpot. This is why it's important to balance curiosity with common sense.
Knowing that something isn't attainable because it might be detrimental to your health, circumstances, or psyche is far different than thinking you can't do something and working harder to achieve it. It's the difference between wanting a married man because you can't have him or deciding to train and run that 5K you've been talking about forever. One is obviously better for you than the other, but your brain still wants them both equally, and knowing a man is married might actually make him more attractive to you for this very same reason.
So, as it turns out, the key to a happier life is pursuing the things that will make you happy and are also healthy for you. Setting and achieving goals is a good thing in your life; find what piques your curiosity and use it to make your life better.
Go ahead and dream, pine away for more wealth, better relationships, or a sexy partner. Accomplish goals that you'd never even imagined, and explore every bit of the world. Work to achieve those things and then reap the rewards from your efforts.
Just make sure in the pursuit of your own happiness that you're not ignoring common sense to trample on someone else's.