The Desperation Cycle

Written on June 17, 2009. Written by .

Many Eastern philosophies advocate the reduction of desire in order to prevent suffering. The logic goes that if you desire little, there will be much less to disappoint you, and this is true. If you care about nothing, not even your own life, then what could possibly upset you? But by the same token, what would ever excite you? If taken to the extreme, the elimination of desire effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater, and merely makes your life quality more stable, but not necessarily better. But suppose you are after stability, perhaps because the pain is too much and you are willing to forego the pleasure. Even then, you must question whether the elimination of desire is even feasible. There are some desires that are so strongly ingrained in us that their elimination would require huge amounts of effort and strain, which would cancel the potential benefits. The most significant such examples would be social desires such as the desire for friendship and romance, which can lead to feelings of loneliness through the desperation cycle.

The key to understanding desperation is that it is not stem from just desire. You do not feel desperate just because you are alone, just as you do not feel desperate just because you are not rich or are not in Aruba right now. Desire is not enough, desperation requires the combination of desire with negative thought patterns based on non-present thinking.

Here is the basic mechanism of the desperation cycle. First you stumble on some desire, nothing painful or problematic, just a realization that you would prefer some other state to your current state. This desire inspires you to make a direct effort to attain the preferred state as quickly as possible. Sometimes this effort may succeed, but if it doesn’t you feel a bit disappointed because you lack control over the attainment of this desire. This lack of control creates a slight insecurity (in this case desperation), initially unnoticeable, but identifiable by the thoughts that it produces. Your planning mind considers the future and worries about what it would be like if you can’t find success. You may worry that your life won’t live up to the standards that you’ve set. You may even have fear of future regret – that you didn’t try hard enough and you missed out on a good opportunity. These non-present thoughts generate an artificial need which feeds back into your lack of control due to the fact that you have a perception of unmet needs. This cycle is what we call the desperation cycle. This process is illustrated in the state diagram below.

There is a way to avoid the desperation cycle without the elimination of desire, which can be found in the state diagram above. If you are in the cycle, you need to break out by detaching from the desire. This amounts to convincing yourself that what feels like a need is in fact just a desire. You can still be happy without it. In fact, psychological studies suggest that people can find ways to adapt to almost any conditions and find ways to be happy. Poor celibate monks, people who have lost their vision, and siamese twins connected at the head have all found ways to be happy with their lives. Our minds are just very bad at predicting future happiness [see Stumbling on Happiness for a thorough explanation]. It may help to meditate or use cognitive therapy to facilitate detachment.

Unless detachment training techniques are continued permanently, the original desire will likely sprout up again soon after the desperation was quelled. Naturally, there is a danger of falling right back into the same cycle. One way to prevent this is to avoid direct effort and instead use indirect effort. Indirect effort refers to the techniques of result detachment, where you put yourself on the path to success, but don’t consciously strive for it. The distinguishing factor between direct and indirect efforts is whether you would still want to perform the action if it was guaranteed that it would not help you in attaining your desire. If you would prefer to not do it, but you do it anyways in the hope of attaining your goals, then it is a direct effort. It may sound like a trivial distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world how you think of things. When using indirect effort, you don’t provide yourself with anything to fail at, and if you can’t fail, then you don’t feel a lack of control.

But is indirect effort as effective as direct effort? In general no, but it depends on what you mean by effective. For example, if you want to start a business, using direct effort will probably help you reach profitability faster. But if you use indirect effort, say by taking your time and exploring your business interests, you will more likely find an option that you truly enjoy. With romance, making a direct effort by going to bars every night may find you a partner faster. On the other hand, you could make an indirect effort by spending more time in social activities that you are really interested in, and increase the odds that you find someone you are truly compatible with. Even if you are not in the desperation cycle, there may still be times when your desire outweighs your other concerns. In this situation, it is probably best to optimize your indirect efforts. For example, you could find new activities to join or develop yourself in ways that make it easier to meet people. If you can learn to avoid creating expections, comparing yourself to others, and rushing for the future, then you will find that life unfolds moment by moment in a perfectly satisfactory way.

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3 Comments so far
  1. bspice June 29, 2009 5:06 am

    I’ve usually followed the indirect effort path, though I’ve called it “going with the flow”. I’ve done what I enjoy rather than planning and optimizing my path through life to achieve goals faster. I’ve so far not been unhappy with the results, but there are a few points in time where I wish I acted differently, or planned more, or worked harder. It is for the most part a nice way to go through life, but it is sometimes easy to get carried away with it. You can achieve higher pleasures from achieving goals than you can merely meandering through life, and you can accomplish much more if you want to accomplish things. It is easy to suffer from laziness, and cyclic psychology if you try to be undirected. If you wish you changed something about the past, you will end up going back to the desperation cycle, because you can’t control the past.
    Perhaps it is best to plan ahead of time and have some simple goals that are fairly easy to achieve, but still give some direction for your life. These goals can be basic needs like have enough food to eat, that you will want to have anyways. Additionally, it could be good to have goals like “attempt college”, or “try to start a business”, so you can check them off even if the business fails, or you drop out.
    After rereading your post, I realized that you do hint at this in your last paragraph. You are directing your indirect effort by choosing to go out and do social activities. I’d say you should probably direct your effort more. It is important sometimes to force yourself to go out when you might want to be lazy inside, or to force yourself to start studying something that you’ll enjoy once you get into it.

  2. cspice June 29, 2009 10:29 pm

    There will always be times when you could have planned more or worked harder; that isn’t something I would try to avoid. If you are severely underplanning, then it will become obvious to the point where you won’t have a choice about changing your principles. Having regret about not planning enough is probably more problematic than the lack of planning itself.

    I disagree with your idea of having a list of basic goals to check off, but only in a subtle way. That is too suggestive of some reason that they need to be checked off. Instead, I advocate having a list of ideas – just so that you won’t forget about the possibility of doing something when the opportunity arises. Let’s say you just got fired, then you might want to have a list to remind you that you once decided it would be fun to ride a bike across Europe, which you could have forgotten about.

    As for rudimentary things like having enough food, I don’t think of that as a goal either. It can be thought of as the natural consequence of the principle of always having more income than expenses, which is enforced in the moment, not planned for. Of course some simple planning will occur automatically (e.g. if I get fired, I will lose my income…), but you don’t want to let yourself fall head first into the trap of overplanning and worrying about it.

  3. Farouk November 1, 2010 10:12 pm

    well said

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