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Chapter 2: The Boundaries of Joy

In this world there are only two tragedies.

One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy!

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan


If we examine the pleasure we derive from having knowledge, domination, honor, wealth, or pleasure from food or sex, it seems that in all these cases, the greatest pleasure is experienced in the brief encounter between the desire and its satisfaction. From the moment we begin to fulfill our desires, the pleasure diminishes.

Pleasure from satisfying a desire may last minutes, hours or days, but it does fade. Even if we spend many years trying to obtain something, like a prestigious office, once we have it, we lose the sensation of pleasure. Apparently, the pleasure that satisfied the desire is also what ended it.

Moreover, when pleasure permeates desire, and subsequently departs, this builds within us a desire to enjoy that is twice as strong as the original desire. What satisfies us today will not satisfy us tomorrow. We want more, much more. Thus, satisfying our desires eventually increases them and compels us to make even greater efforts to satisfy them.

When the desire to obtain things diminishes, one’s sensation of life and one’s vitality diminish. This is how human society constantly provides each member new desires, which revive us for another fleeting moment. However, time and time again we are filled for a moment and then drained once more, only to become more frustrated.

Today’s society impels us to acquire more and more, to purchase almost everything, even when we do not have the means. Aggressive marketing, the need to meet social standards, and the ease of getting credit lead us to purchase far above our incomes.

Yet, once we have purchased something new, the excitement of possessing the new item soon fades as though it was never there, although the payments stay with us for years. In these cases, the disappointment from the purchase is not forgotten over time, but rather accumulates.

Wealth, too, does not bring happiness. New research, headed by Prof. Daniel Kahneman [11], reveals that there is a huge gap between the “ordinary person’s” assessment of the effect of parameters such as wealth and physical state on one’s mood, and their actual impact according to the measurements made in the research. The research measured people’s day-to-day mood and found no significant difference between rich and poor.

Moreover, negative moods (anger and hostility) were more frequent among the rich. One of the explanations for the absence of a stronger link between wealth and day-to-day happiness is that we quickly become accustomed to comfort and our new standard of living, and immediately want more.

We can summarize the boundaries of the desire to enjoy in the words of Baal HaSulam: “This world is created with a want and emptiness of the good abundance. And in order to acquire possessions, movement is required. However, it is known that profusion of movement pains humans… However, it is also impossible to remain devoid of possessions and good… Consequently, we choose the torment of movement to acquire the possessions. However, because all their possessions are for themselves alone, and ‘he who has a single portion wants a double portion,’ one finally dies with only ‘half one’s desire in one’s hand.’ In the end, they suffer from both sides—from the increase of pain due to the multiplicity of movement, and from the regret at not having the possessions they need to fill their empty half.” [12]

It follows that the desire to enjoy places us in an evidently impossible situation. On the one hand, our desires constantly grow. On the other hand, fulfilling them, which costs us so heavily in effort and action, yields very short-lived satisfaction, which leaves us twice as empty.

[11] Published June 2006 in Science magazine. The research was headed by 2002 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman.

[12] Baal HaSulam, Talmud Eser Sefirot (The Study of the Ten Sefirot), Part One.

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