Why Do People Want What They Can’t Have? 3 Ideas

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do people want what they can’t have? Are people doomed to always be unsatisfied?

The question “why do people want what they can’t have” can be answered with the grass-is-greener syndrome. This is the idea that we are motivated by desire, not satisfaction, and it’s impossible for us to be happy with what we have.

Keep reading to find out the answer to the question, “why do people want what they can’t have?”

Why Do People Want What They Can’t Have?

So why do people want what they can’t have? This is just a part of human nature. We’re not programmed to be satisfied, and are motivated by wanting. Here’s why this happens.

The Grass is Always Greener on The Other Side Syndrome

  • For example, many people search for the perfect romantic partner. However, no one’s perfect, so always searching for someone new isn’t going to bring satisfaction. 

The farther away or more difficult our want, the more we want it—people want things that are taboo and elusive. For example, older adults who have a lot of distance from their childhoods often wish they could be kids again, which is impossible.

Why do people want what they can’t have? The grass is always greener on the other side syndrome is wired into the human brain and comes from three sources:

  1. Survival instinct. By nature, the brain considers the worst possible outcome of any situation because if people were content with their surroundings, they might not have noticed dangers.
  2. Imagination. Our mental conjurings don’t feel that different from reality. Studies have found that when we imagine an experience, our brain reacts almost the same way that it would if we were actually having that experience. As a result, when we imagine getting something we covet, it’s almost as pleasing as if we actually get it.
  3. Induction. This is using contrast in order to understand something. When presented with something, the brain always conjures up the opposite to amplify our perception of the original. (For example, when we see a red object, we sometimes see a green halo around it, because green is the opposite of red.) This means that whenever something is taboo or forbidden, the taboo itself makes us realize what we’re lacking.
    • For example, the pornography industry didn’t flourish until it was outlawed. 

Even though the grass is always greener on the other side syndrome will always exist, people don’t always take advantage of it. For example, advertisements are heavy-handed, and politicians might be good at riling us up in the moment, but none of this is persuasive in the long term because it doesn’t present a future.

This helps explain the question “why do people want what they can’t have?” Now you can consider your own tendencies and what they mean.

Why Do People Want What They Can’t Have? 3 Ideas

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  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
  • How you behave differently when you're in a group
  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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