This is part of my series on Mental Models to Understand Yourself
I love potato chips. Whether it’s Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, Jalapeño Kettle Chips, or Barbecue Pringles, I can’t get enough.
I first discovered jalapeño chips, thirteen years ago, at the local dollar store while browsing for school supplies and cheap candy. The chips caught my eye, and I whispered, what gloriousness! I made a mental note of the aisle number, bought a bag, and consumed it as soon as I got home. The next day I returned to that aisle and cleared out their entire measly stock of seven bags. My wife greeted me with a smile when I returned home, but it evaporated when she saw my new-found treasure. I have a history of buying questionable food-like items from the dollar store (never buy their frozen chicken nuggets, no matter how low the price!). Anyway, it didn’t take long for me to inhale all seven bags.
You’re probably thinking, Damn, Stewie has a problem. And you’re right. I do.
Whenever I think of chips, I crave them. Not an overwhelming desire, but a mild one. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s about a 2. But sit next to me at a summer barbecue with a burger and chips on your flimsy paper plate, and my craving advances to a 4. And if I eat just one, with its salty flavor and satisfying crunch, my desire pole vaults to a 7.
Here’s the worst part: if I eat ten chips, my hankering holds its ground and stays at a 7. And after fifty chips, it remains at a 7. Regardless of how many I eat, my desire never abates. I only stop after I’ve tipped the bag’s bottom high in the air, and the last crumbs tumble into my mouth.
My craving for chips only intensifies when I eat them. There’s no stopping it, no satiating it. It’s ever-present. So the rational thing is never to eat them. Not even one. This way, the scale never tips past 4. I don’t even buy chips anymore, so they never sit next to me and sing their siren song. This keeps my craving at a 2, except for those pesky barbecues where chip-lovers have the gall to plop down next to me!
Don’t those donuts look yummy! I could eat a box of those right about now.
Yes, I have a problem with sweets. Specifically, doughnuts, pies, and anything mixed with chocolate, e.g., peanut butter and chocolate, caramel and chocolate, or nuts and chocolate. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say I cannot be trusted to eat only one piece of my kids’ Halloween candy or a single slice of pecan pie. My drive for sweet things is only slightly less than that for potato chips. So, I do my best not to eat them either.
But wait, there’s more!
I suffer from another class of craving, which is somewhat milder. It doesn’t go up or down but is consistent. For example, I always want to buy more books. No matter how many I bought last week or last year, I want more. There’s not enough time to read what’s on my bookshelves, but that doesn’t matter. I may purchase a couple of books today, and before they arrive in two days, my attention moves on to the ones I don’t have.
This desire whispers, if you just get this one thing, I’ll go away. You’ll finally feel content. But it’s a lie. The voice never leaves, and I never feel completely satisfied. I always want more.
So I set limits on how many books I buy. Sure, I dream of being rich with a personal library of 10,000 volumes, like Robert Jordan (except all of mine would be hardbacks!). But for now, I buy two or three every month. And more than half of them are used, which keeps the cost relatively low.
While feeding my hunger for books is pretty harmless, other desires present challenges if I give into them. For example, no matter what kind of car I have, I fantasize about a nicer one. Right now, I want a self-driving Tesla Model Y, which would be a huge step up from my no-frills Honda Odyssey. But a Tesla’s novelty would soon wane, and I’d want something nicer. I’d be foolish to accrue debt for something when I will just want something else. When mild dissatisfaction is omnipresent, I might as well stick with the cheaper minivan.
The same idea applies to where I live. I have a nice house in a nice area in Utah. But I dream of a nicer house: one with an exercise room, a pool, no stairs, and no basement (I fear basement floods). I daydream of living someplace with perfect weather like San Diego, CA; Málaga, Spain; or Tuscany, Italy. But I know that it would cost a lot to move — housing in San Diego is particularly pricey — and eventually, I’d dream of someplace else. I might as well stay in my current house and keep using the stairs.
I accept that craving is always with me. It hints that everything will be perfect, and I’ll never hear from it again, if I just give in and take another bite of carrot cake, finish that can of Pringles, buy a Tesla, or incur a massive mortgage to buy a home in San Diego. But it’s a trick. A lie. A dirty, dirty lie.
These days, I know that I will feel some discontent, no matter what I have or where I live, and that is freeing. I avoid the hopeless cycle of maybe this will finally make the longing go away. Instead, I choose what to safely indulge in but with limits, like books. And I decide what to abstain from, like chips, sweets, and expensive cars.
Lastly, I realized that even though my craving won’t disappear, I can turn down its volume. It quiets from a whisper-shout to a mere murmur when I meditate, record what I feel grateful for, and avoid advertisements. And that makes my life a hundred times more enjoyable.