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What You Really, Really Want

Having responsibilities implies we have something to give. Having something to give implies an abundance. It’s the opposite of wanting.

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

As the holiday seasons approaches, so grows the household anxiety level attached to the accumulation of stuff. As I pre-emptively purge the house of lesser-used items, there’s a word that has been popping up in conversations, and has stubbornly remained front of mind.


I can’t help but reflect on how often that word is used in everyday life. After I started to focus on it, I was surprised by how much I say it.

I say it a lot.

What do you want to do?

Do you want something to eat?

What music do you want to listen to?

What do you want to wear?

Do you want to go to the park?

As you may have guessed, most of these questions are directed at my kids. Like many parents, at some point I got it into my head that it’s a good to offer kids choices. Upon reflection, that notion is probably grounded in the western ideal of individuality. I did it without even noticing. Like an automaton. Beep.

And now people are asking me, what do you want for Christmas?

Once I became conscious of using the word want, it awakened a nagging voice in my head. The things that we give our attention to go on to shape our reality. Was this line of questioning aligned with my values? Is this constant focus on wanting fostering a desire to consume?

This brings me back to something we talked about in From the Ashes Episode One. In the discussion, the western individualistic ideal is contrasted against an indigenous collective value, exemplified respectively in the two philosophies: “we have rights” and “we have responsibilities.” The first mindset implies a receiving of something, while the second implies a giving forth. This seems relevant to the idea of want.

Image by Bianca Lucas on Upsplash

Want has more than one meaning, of course. It means both to desire but also to be without. This makes me think of scarcity, and a Hidden Brain podcast episode called Tunnel Vision. I went back and listened to it again.

Scarcity causes the brain to constantly think about what it doesn’t have. It’s a survival instinct often manipulated by advertisers to drive consumerism. We want, we consume, then we want more. It never ends. The wanting mindset can never be satisfied because it starts from a place of emptiness, needing to be filled in order to feel whole. It drives one to hoard rather than give.

The responsibility mindset does something else. Having responsibilities implies we have something to give. Having something to give implies an abundance. It’s the opposite of wanting. More importantly, it contributes to satisfying the three basic psychological needs as defined by self-determination theory (SDT), namely autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Meeting these needs improves subjective well-being (SWB), as measure of positive feeling, low negative feelings, and life satisfaction.

Sounds a like the recipe for a happy life. It also sounds like something that can’t be bought or otherwise obtained outside oneself. And it’s exactly what I hope to help my children achieve.

This brings us back to giving kids choices. While in part it’s about independence, I also want to award a certain amount of autonomy. If I’m being honest, sometimes the “choices” I offer up are limited, and therefore a false autonomy. In other words, I’m being dishonest, controlling though manipulation, and failing to foster the basic psychological needs that lead to well-being. Not a proud parenting revelation.

Finding myself miles away from my parenting goals, I wondered how to get back on track.

Serendipitously, I stumbled upon a book that helped me with that conundrum. Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Douceleff examines parenting in three cultures, and responsibility is a recurring theme. It had some good tips on ways to encourage cooperation instead of resorting to control. The upside is I can simultaneously fulfil my own need for relatedness at the same time. It’s good for adult relationships to boot.

And so, just like that, I banished the word want from my vocabulary.

Kidding. I’m not a robot.

Instead, when I’m being mindful with my children, I try to transform a “want” question into an invitation. What do you want for dinner? becomes let’s make dinner. It’s an invitation to build relatedness and competence, to understand their contribution and role in the family. If I’m turned down, it’s an opportunity to exercise autonomy. Win-win. Oh, and I’m far less likely to get locked into a control battle. Win-win-win.

When I’m being mindful with my own thoughts, I try to recognize the sudden lure of consumerism for what it is: an attempt to satiate some unmet need with stuff. With enough practice, I hope to untangle wants from needs, and take the onus of generating well-being off of possessions.

I’m not without empathy. Given that the thing I want is not to want anything, I likely cause anxiety for those wanting to buy me a gift. I guess anxiety has become something of holiday tradition.

What is your relationship with the word want? Do you find it interferes with your relationships or enhances them? How do the mindsets “we have rights” and “we have responsibilities” manifest in your life, and how do they impact your sense of well-being?

We’d love to hear from you. Comment below, email us, or connect with us through the Book Interrupted Book Club Facebook group! Your comment could be featured at the end of each book cycle during our fan episode.

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