Desire, Pain and Suffering

John A. Johnson

June, 2006


Poor man wanna be rich

Rich man wanna be king

And a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything.

--Bruce Springsteen, Badlands


Actually, even if the king ruled everything, he would still not be satisfied. Desires are insatiable. When we get something we desire, there may be a moment of satisfaction. But then we either want more of it, or we start wanting something else. While in a state of desiring something we do not have, we experience tension, incompleteness, restlessness, discontent and dissatisfaction. Continued failure to get what we desire can lead to stronger feelings, including frustration, anger, and despair. We overlook the good things we already have, notice only what we do not have, and feel miserable.


According to Buddhist thought, desire is the root of all suffering, which means that the cure for suffering is to eliminate desire. I agree that unfulfilled desire is the root of all suffering. I do not, however, see eliminating desire as a practical cure for suffering, because eliminating desire is simply too difficult for most of us. Nonetheless, I think we can significantly reduce suffering by intervening in the process by which desires cause suffering. My thinking on this subject, which draws from the writings of Timothy Miller (1995, 1998) is outlined below.


Emotional Pain versus Suffering as Consequences of Unfulfilled Desire


I think it is important to first distinguish emotional pain from suffering. Emotional pain is an immediate, automatic reaction to the loss of something we desire or the failure to achieve something we desire. Because emotional pain is an involuntary, automatic reaction, and because everyone experiences loss and failure, some emotional pain is inevitable and unavoidable in everyone's life.


Whereas pain represents an immediate, short-term reaction, suffering is a more prolonged emotional reaction to the loss of, or failure to achieve, what we desire. Suffering is a function of the way we think about our pain. Certain thoughts intensify and extend pain. Other thoughts diminish and shorten pain. We have no direct control over our desires or over the immediate pain that results from the frustration of our desires. However, to the extent to which we can control our thoughts, we can also control our suffering.


If we had no desires, we would never experience the emotional pain and suffering that follows the loss of what we desire or the failure to achieve what we desire. In this sense, desire is the root of all suffering. Yet we do have desires, and—regardless of reports of ascetic monks—most of us cannot realistically eliminate our desires. Desires are deeply rooted instincts. We can, however, reduce unnecessary suffering by eliminating, as much as possible, the kinds of thinking that turn immediate pain into long-term suffering.


How Must-Have Thinking Causes Suffering


What kind of thinking leads to suffering? Suffering comes about when thinking that we would like to have something becomes thinking that we absolutely need that something in order to be happy. Thinking that we must have something to be happy can lead to thinking that it would be catastrophic if we lose (or fail to attain) what we desire. We become morose over losses, we fret and obsess over what we might lose, and we worry that we won't be able to obtain what we think we need to be happy. This, in turn, can lead to using, abusing, and manipulating other people in order to get what we think we need.


Thinking that we must have something to be happy can also lead to thinking that we have a natural right to what we desire.  This sense of entitlement breeds resentment when others have what we lack. We curse the world for being unfair. If someone interferes with our keeping or obtaining what we desire, we can become angry and morally outraged because we feel we are entitled to the objects of our desire. This, in turn, can lead to violence or other forms of retribution where we can end up harming people, including ourselves.


Obtaining What We Think We Must Have Does Not Eliminate Suffering


And what happens when we manage to obtain what we desired so badly, what we thought we needed to be happy? Well, sometimes satisfying a strong desire does result in great pleasure. Momentary pleasure. When the pleasure fades, we want more of what we acquired. Or a bigger, better, faster, more beautiful version of what we acquired. Or we start desiring other things. We find ourselves on a hedonic treadmill, always desperately pursuing acquisitions without achieving lasting happiness. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are almost there; getting just a little more will put us over the top and we will be content. But acquisition will never lead to contentment because we will always want more. Suffering continues.


Furthermore, achieving momentary pleasures is the best scenario. Consider how someone can long for years and years for what seems to be an important key to happiness (an expensive car, house, or vacation; an attractive romantic partner; a secure job that pays well) and then finds that what was strongly desired does not bring the pleasure that was expected. Not even temporary pleasure, just disappointment and suffering.


An Alternative to Must-Have Thinking That Reduces Suffering


So, what is an alternative way of thinking that minimizes suffering and produces a more lasting happiness? The alternative thinking is a two-stage process. In the first stage, we recognize cases where we are thinking that we absolutely must have something in order to be happy and challenge the validity of that thinking. The second stage involves replacing the must-have thinking with positive, yet realistic, thoughts that promote the appreciation of what we do have. These two stages are spelled out in more detail below.


Stage 1: Eliminating Must-Have Thinking


If, for anything we desire, we can honestly tell ourselves that we would simply like to have that something rather than we must have that something, then failing to obtain or keep what we desire would not be a big deal. For example, if I think, "I would like a new car to replace my deteriorating jalopy," but I can't afford a new car, I would just shrug my shoulders and move on with life. On the other hand, if I told myself that I had to have a new car, I would suffer until I could afford one. (And this might be never!) So, giving up must-have thinking seems like a reasonable, straightforward step toward reducing suffering. But two impediments can block us from taking that first step.


First, we might agree that must-have thinking makes some people suffer, but deny that this is true for us. "Oh, no," we say. "I always think in terms of liking to have things. I never say that I must have things." Well, if that is true, congratulations. If you truly never feel you must have something to be happy, then that means you never suffer. You never feel unnecessary anger, anxiety, depression, grief, guilt, pessimism, resentment, or self-hate. If, at times, you do experience any of these types of suffering, then you are employing must-have thinking after all.  Before we can reduce suffering through minimizing must-have thinking, we first have to admit that we occasionally engage in must-have thinking.


A second roadblock to decreasing must-have thinking is the belief there are some things that we absolutely must have or we will suffer. Surely we must be treated fairly to be happy! Surely we cannot be happy unless our children are healthy and successful! Surely there is a minimum standard of living that I must attain to be happy! To challenge the validity of thinking that X, Y, or Z is an absolute requirement for happiness, it might help to remember that there are people who have far more than we do but are unhappy and people who have far less than we do who are happy. No one thing is an absolute requirement for happiness.


Stage 2: Replacing Must-Have Thinking With Acceptance and Appreciation


Nature abhors a vacuum. Banishing must-have thinking will be more successful if supported by a second stage, which involves replacing the must-have thinking with thoughts that promote accepting and appreciating what we already have.


But before elaborating on specific ways of accepting and appreciating what we already have, I need to immediately address a common objection to the attitude of acceptance. The objection is that being content with what we have short-circuits ambition, personal growth and self-improvement. If we are satisfied with our current circumstances, wouldn't we become lackadaisical? Will we fail to plan for the future? Will we cheerfully accept being abused by others and will we ignore the plight of fellow human beings who are in pain? Will we stop acquiring knowledge, inventing new technologies, and striving to improve the standard of living for ourselves and others?


No, not necessarily. Learning to accept and appreciate what we have does not mean giving up strivings and pursuits. To be alive means to strive and pursue. Accepting and appreciating what we have means is giving up the idea that we must obtain what we are pursuing in order to be happy. To use a sports analogy, it is fine to employ every bit of strength, speed, skill, concentration, and cleverness we can muster to win the game, as long as we aren't thinking that we absolutely must win at any cost. Thinking that we must win leads to over-exertion, injuries, anxiety that interferes with performance and enjoyment, rule infractions and poor sportsmanship that damages relationships, malicious gloating after a win, and prolonged anger and depression after a loss. The game of life is more complex than any sport, but the principles are the same. Desiring and pursuing love, wealth, and recognition are fine unless we employ must-have thinking, which invariably harms ourselves, others, and sometimes the planet.


Specific Alternatives to Must-Have Thinking: Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude


Timothy Miller (1995, 1998) describes three attitudes or ways of thinking designed to replace must-have thinking and to promote acceptance and appreciation of what we already have. He labels these three ways of thinking Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude. He purposely capitalizes the three attitudes for two reasons. One is to distinguish them from the ordinary meanings of the three words. Compassion is not merely feeling sorry for and helping those who are suffering. Attention is not merely being aware of something interesting. Gratitude is not merely showing appreciation after receiving a gift. Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude do not deny the value of ordinary compassion, attention, and gratitude, all of which can promote well being and good relationships. But whereas ordinary compassion, attention, and gratitude are natural reactions that come effortlessly to most people, Miller's Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude are difficult disciplines that do not come naturally and require much practice to put into effect.


The second reason the Miller capitalizes Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude is to show a certain reverence that he holds for these ways of thinking. To his mind, the practice of C, A, and G are akin to a spiritual discipline that gives meaning to life beyond the mere accumulation of material possessions, achievement of power and influence, and experience of love and sex. In both of his books, Miller goes to great lengths to show that the practice of C, A, and G are not meant as alternatives to traditional religious doctrines by showing that all of the major world religions have already espoused C, A, and G as virtues. If you care about this issue, you can judge for yourself whether he succeeds by reading his books.


Personally, I am a little concerned that identifying the three attitudes as keys to happiness and capitalizing them creates the potential for making the system look like some kind of New Age cult, Millerism, from someone who thinks he has it all figured out. Historically, the number 3 has strong religious connotations, so is CAG meant to replace any of the holy trinities? Does it rule out the possibility of a fourth or fifth attitude that may help promote well-being? I do not think that Miller means to start a new religion, nor does he think he has it all figured out. Regardless of his intentions, I think that C, A, and G can be seen as a mere starting point, something to try because the approach Miller is suggesting has been demonstrated by research to ameliorate suffering. It may not solve all problems, but it is worth considering.


Here is a capsule summary of Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude and what they are meant to accomplish. A more detailed treatment of each attitude follows. Compassion is understanding that those who oppose us desire the same things we do—wealth, influence, love—and that neither we nor they are more entitled to the objects of our desire. Developing Compassion is meant to reduce unnecessary anger when we find ourselves in conflict with others. Attention is complete awareness of a situation—including our sensations, thoughts, and feelings—without placing a negative value judgment on aspects of the situation that cannot be changed. Developing Attention is meant to engender a calm, level-headedness that allows us to appraise a situation accurately and to make good decisions. Gratitude is thankfulness for things that most people normally do not appreciate, from small or often-overlooked positive things to what are usually seen as negative things. Developing Gratitude is meant to increase satisfaction with life by reminding us of the infinite number of desirable things that we already have.


Now for a closer look at Miller's Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude.




By Compassion, Miller does NOT mean primarily any of the following common meanings of compassion:


Rather, Compassion is acting upon a solid grasp of the following points:


People who understand and keep in mind the above points will be less likely to experience hatred, resentment, condemnation, and anger toward people who are not satisfying their desires. These negative feelings often interfere with good judgment and smart problem solving, so reducing them allows one to deal more constructively with others. Sometimes this means sympathizing, listening, offering assistance, giving, and forgiving, i.e., traditional compassion. Other times it could mean accepting or ignoring, i.e., not making a big deal out of the situation. In still other cases, it could mean disapproving, correcting, or even punishing—as long as the reprimanding is conducted in the best interest of everyone rather than out of anger. Compassion as “tough love” can be the trickiest to carry out, and should be reserved for cases where another person is clearly endangering the life of him/herself or others. Otherwise, it could become an excuse to justify denying others’ desires in order to satisfy your own desires.




Attention certainly involves what we ordinarily mean by attention, which is to be fully aware of your present situation. However, Attention also includes the following additional mental attitudes:


While focusing on the present, your focus can be narrow or open, as best suits the situation. A narrow focus allows you to attend carefully to small details in your environment. An open focus includes a broader awareness of yourself in the situation: your sensations, your breathing, your thoughts, and your feelings. Open focus attention leads to peace of mind, to a state of serenity and equanimity. In contrast to a mind clouded by anger, anxiety, or regret, a calm, composed mind is more likely to think clearly, make good judgments, and solve problems effectively.




An ordinary state of gratitude follows from receiving a gift that we like. Gratitude with a capital G is an effort to look at every situation as a gift, even when there is no giver, and even when we don’t automatically like the situation. Every situation contains some elements we might dislike and other elements we like. A person who cultivates a state of Gratitude actively looks for things to like about a situation rather than dwelling on what might be unlikable (see Attention above). Gratitude includes the following:



Note that Gratitude is not a moral obligation. We are often told that we should be grateful for certain things (as in the maxim, "Your attitude should be gratitude."). The only reason that we “should” practice Gratitude is the reason we “should” do anything: in order to achieve a particular consequence. The positive consequences of Gratitude are rather obvious. Practicing Gratitude increases our psychological well-being.




Miller, T. (1995). How to want what you have: Discovering the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence. New York: Henry Holt and Company.


Miller, T. (1998). Wanting what you have: A self-discovery workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.