Learning to Want the Right Things

Castle analogy for The Millionaire Next Door
4 min read

In the movie Shrek, there’s a scene where Shrek and Donkey have to rescue a princess from the highest room in the tallest tower of a castle guarded by a dragon.

Instead of attempting to fight the dragon directly, the two take an unorthodox approach. Donkey distracts the dragon while Shrek fetches the princess and carries her down the stairs to the ground level where they eventually make an escape.

On their way down the stairs, the princess hears the dragon roar in the distance and is shocked to find that Shrek bypassed fighting the dragon altogether.

This isn’t right! You were meant to charge in, sword drawn, banner flying. That’s what all the other knights did,” she exlcaims.

Shrek laughs and points to the remains of the other knights who tried to fight the dragon.

“Yeah, right before they burst into flame.”

Shrek didn’t use the tactic that he was supposed to use to rescue the princess, which is exactly why he got a different result than the other knights.

This scene offers a nice metaphor to personal finance. 

The Traditional Approach

For most of my childhood, I grew up thinking that a high income was the main ingredient in the recipe for a good life. After all, a high income would allow me to buy all of the things that would bring happiness: a nice house, a nice car, nice clothing, and all the other stuff that was needed to live a good life.

I assumed that the good life was locked up in the highest room in the tallest tower and all I needed to do was earn a high income so I could buy all the stuff I needed and slay all of my material desires. If I could simply buy everything I desired, then surely I would be happy.

Essentially, I grew up believing the “traditional approach” was a tried-and-tested approach to lead a good life:

Traditional approach:

1. Earn a high income.

2. Use that income to buy all the stuff I desire.

3. Enjoy the good life.

This is why, once I started researching the psychology of happiness, I was so surprised to find that earning a lot of money and buying all of the things one desired was actually not a proven path to a good life.

William B. Irvine shares in A Guide to the Good Life:

“Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.”

The simple explanation: often when we finally acquire that thing we desired for so long, that thing suddenly loses its appeal and we become used to it quite quickly.

The new house, the new car, and the new shoes all become ordinary once we own them and we eventually slide back down to our baseline level of happiness.

Irvine explains:

“We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”

Fortunately, I learned that there’s an alternative path you can take, one which doesn’t involve fighting the dragon face to face in order to reach the good life hidden in the highest room in the tallest tower. It turns out that you can, just as Shrek did, bypass the dragon altogether.

The Unorthodox Approach 

If getting all of the things you want isn’t a proven path to a good life, perhaps simply wanting the right things in the first place is a better strategy. 

Irvine shares in A Guide to the Good Life:

“A much better, albeit less obvious way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy our desires but by working to master them. In particular, we need to take steps to slow down the desire-formation process within us. Rather than working to fulfill whatever desires we find in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and eliminating many of the desires that have formed. And rather than wanting new things, we need to work at wanting the things we already have.”

This doesn’t mean you have to desire nothing, but instead by desiring the right things you free yourself of the obligation to run on the hedonic treadmill for several decades, often stuck in a work situation you don’t love just to earn income to buy things that you quickly get bored of.

So, what are the “right things” to desire?

It varies from one person to the next. I personally know that a fancy car wouldn’t make me any happier. Owning a yacht wouldn’t do much for me. I don’t care much about fashion, so newer clothes would’t bring me much satisfaction. I don’t love housecleaning, so I’m not particularly interested in owning a large house.

I do know, however, that spending money on Chipotle, houseplants, coffee, a quality laptop, headphones, and a gym membership all bring me an absurd amount of happiness. 

This is why I’m following the unorthodox approach to lead a good life:

Unorthodox approach:

1. Earn a high income.

2. Learn to desire the right things, then use my income to buy those things.

3. Enjoy the good life.

Notice the subtle, but important, difference between the traditional approach and the unorthodox approach:

Steps Traditional Approach Unorthodox Approach
1. Earn a high income. Earn a high income.
2. Use that income to buy all the stuff I desire. Learn to desire the right things, then use my income to buy those things.
3. Enjoy the good life. Enjoy the good life.

The main difference between the two approaches is that the unorthodox approach allows you to spend far less money without sacrificing your quality of life. And by needing less money to lead a good life, you can obtain financial flexibility or financial independence much more easily.

So, rather than blindly attempt to acquire all of the things you think you need to live a good life, take some time and identify the things that actually bring you joy or value. Then, use your income to buy those things exclusively. This will help you keep more money in your bank account without negatively impacting your quality of life.

I’ll leave you with this neat four-minute video on hedonic adaptation as some food for thought:

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7 Replies to “Learning to Want the Right Things”

  1. That’s an interesting approach. I think it’d be tough to “learn to desire the right things.” That seems to change through life. Also, what if fancy cars, yachts, and expensive new clothes bring you an absurd amount of happiness? That’s not going to work out well. In that case, you probably have to change what you make you happy somehow.

    1. Agreed that your desires change throughout life. And I’d question whether or not cars, yachts, and expensive clothes actually bring genuine happiness or if they bring fleeting happiness. That’s for each individual to decide on their own, though.

      1. Let me tell you, spending a few days on somebody else’s boat brought me lots of joy. And while the boat’s owner loved having us airbnb’ers defraying his costs (he was retired), he also loved to teach sailing, navigation and spending quality time with interesting people. Would I enjoy his boat if it were mine? Probably not nearly so much. Find a way to have those amazing experiences. They don’t have to be ridiculously expensive. And don’t spend tons of money on a car. When they become fully self-driving (and have a guarantee like Volvo’s where the company has promised to take 100% liability) you’ll want to trade in 2-3 vehicles for the one your whole family can use.

  2. Great topic and title. You really narrowed in on the real problem a lot of us are facing. I love research on the connection between happiness and money, so I’ll bookmark the TED talk for later. It might be a great video for my students to see because they get lost in the “make a lot of money” message a lot!

    I like how you didn’t turn this post into “wanting to earn money” is the problem or anything. Like you said, changing number 2 was the key in your unorthodox approach.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this post! And agreed – wanting to earn more money isn’t necessarily a problem. Having more money can often solve a lot of problems and bring a ton of freedom as well.

  3. That’s really interesting. I’ve come to the same conclusion, but took it a step further – the ‘things’ I enjoy most aren’t things (spending time with people I love and exploring this gorgeous world of ours). They also don’t cost any money.

    After that I can think of actual things that bring me joy (and Chipotle is one of them!) but they bring me less joy or more conditional joy than the above. For example, one of the reasons I enjoy Chipotle so much is not just because it’s delicious, but because I eat it rarely – maybe once a month so it’s a treat and feels special. If I had it every day (and I’ve tried this) hedonic adaptation takes over and it becomes normal. I don’t feel the same way about spending time with people, such as my partner every day. It always feels special…and now I sound like a sap… Anyway, very interesting juxtaposition. I’m going to go contemplate life some more.

    1. Love that – the “things” you enjoy most aren’t things at all. I feel the same – for me it’s traveling, experiences, relationships, meaningful work, etc.

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