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Desire as the Root of Madness

As an exercise, list five things you deeply desire. Do you want a new job? A relationship? A vacation? Better health?

Now imagine that you were granted these things you crave. How good would you feel? How long would that satisfaction last? If you’re like most people, in short order you’d start wanting something new.

We live in a culture that encourages desire. The entire advertising industry aims to make us want. These efforts to persuade us to purchase contribute to the ills in our society. We have become a culture that uses and discards things at an alarming rate. Such base hunger for goods is clearly pathological, even if it is legitimized on every front. (After 9/11, then President Bush actually encouraged people to get back to the business of spending, as if we could buy our way out of tragedy.)

The Buddha spoke of desire as the primary cause of suffering. He also listed anger and ignorance among the major afflictions of humanity. These three conditions are closely related, but note how desire heads the list. Imagine what the Buddha would say today, seeing how we have built an entire economy on the endless pursuit of material hungers.

Sanity and peace can never result from such a path, In fact, anger is the inevitable outcome of desire, which after all gets thwarted more often than satisfied. Psychologists studying infants have found that at the earliest ages of human life a baby will display what looks like fury if you keep him or her from reaching an enticing toy. And so it goes throughout life: we become angry, even enraged, when the world prevents us from enjoying what we want.

It isn’t just material consumption that causes desire and frustration, either. We want respect and the world ignores us; we get mad. We want love and our partner seems distracted; we get mad. We want money and stock market scheming drains the system dry; we get mad.

If we never wanted the respect, love, and money in the first place, we’d sidestep a lot of misery. It might be a tall order to suppress our appetite for these things, but success would improve our peace of mind.

The connection between anger and desire seems clear, but the ultimate source of suffering is ignorance about what makes us happy. We mistakenly believe we can create happiness by getting everything to work out the way we want. Once we find a satisfying relationship, a spacious home, an exciting job, financial security, a happy family, good friends, and worldly recognition, we’ll finally settle down and enjoy living. Problem is, we can seldom get all those planets to line up and stay in place. One or another of our precious spheres will inevitably wobble, gyrate, or escape us completely.

Clearly, a life driven by desires is doomed to feel unsatisfying. The world simply does not feed our every whim. And even when a hunger gets sated, the nagging feeling of want returns before long. Seeking happiness by following desires leads to frustration, not happiness.

We should remember that desire can make us yearn for many things, material, interpersonal, and philosophical: for possessions, for food, for sex, for love, for power, for conformity, for freedom, for politeness, for justice, for equality, for safety, for peace, for health, etc., etc. Some of these hungers are more ethically defensible than others, but the world never consistently satisfies any of them. The failure to recognize this inescapable truth is the base ignorance that underlies most of our problems.

Again, stilling desire is not easy. Study, contemplation, and meditative practice help, but years may pass before one begins to feel free of the endless cycle of want. Even so, that time will pass anyway, and wouldn’t it be nice to enter our later life released from the engine of endless suffering?

Desire as the Root of Madness

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2011). Desire as the Root of Madness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 2 Nov 2011
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