“Longing is a signal that something is missing. Our feelings tell us whether to stay in our current state or change it.” – James Clear.
Where do longings come from?
Every habit has a surface level and a deeper, hidden motivation. I often have a craving that goes something like this: “I want to eat tacos.” If you ask me why I want to eat tacos, I won’t say, “Because I have to eat so I don’t die.” But the truth is, somewhere deep inside me, I’m motivated to eat tacos because I have to eat so I don’t die. The deep-seated motive is to find food and water, though my craving is for tacos.
Some of these hidden motives are:
Find food and water
Find love and reproduce
Connect and make friends with others
Gain social recognition and approval
Achieve status and prestige
Longing is a specific manifestation of a deeply hidden motive. Your brain wasn’t born wanting to smoke cigarettes or constantly check Instagram or play video games. At a deeper level, you simply want to reduce uncertainty and end anxiety, gain social recognition and approval, or raise your social status. Look at almost any habit-forming product and you will see that it does not create any new motivation, but rather adheres to the hidden motives of human nature.
Find love and reproduce = use Tinder
Connect and befriend others = open Facebook
Gain social recognition and approval = post on Instagram
Reduce uncertainty = google
Achieve status and prestige = play video games
Your habits are the modern satisfaction of ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The hidden motives behind human behavior always remain the same. The specific habits we perform differ based on different historical periods.
There are many different ways to address the same hidden motive. A person can learn to reduce stress by smoking a cigarette. Another learns to suppress his anxiety by going out for a run. Your current habits are not necessarily the best way to solve a problem. They are simply methods that you learn to apply. Once you connect the solution to the problem you need to solve, you will keep coming back to it.
Habits are just associations
These associations determine whether a habit is worth repeating or not. Your brain is constantly gathering information and noting cues in the environment. Every time you see a sign, your brain immediately plays a simulation and predicts what you will do next.
Sign: You notice that the stove is hot.
Prediction: If I touch it, I will get scalded, so I must avoid touching it.
All this happens in milliseconds, but it plays a key role in your habits, because every habit is preceded by a prediction. Your predictions about the world around you determine how you act within that world. Life seems spontaneous, but it is actually predictable. You are constantly predicting what will happen next. All day long you try to predict as accurately as possible your next action in a given situation.
Our behavior strongly depends on the way we interpret the events that befall us, but not necessarily on the objective reality of the events themselves. Two people can look at the same cigarette and one feel the need to smoke while the other is disgusted by the smell. The same sign can trigger both a beneficial and a harmful habit. The reason for your habit is actually the prediction that preceded it. These predictions lead to feelings, which is a typical way we describe a longing—a feeling, a desire, and an urge. Feelings and emotions transform the signs we see and the predictions we turn into actionable signals. They help us explain what we really feel. For example, whether you realize it or not, you notice whether or not you are currently cold. If the temperature drops by one degree, you probably won’t do anything. However, if it drops ten degrees, you will get up and get dressed. Feeling the cold is a signal that prompts you to action. You’ve been picking up on the signs all along, but you only take action when you predict you’ll be better off if you change your state.
Longing is a signal that something is missing. It is the desire to change your inner status. When the temperature drops, there’s a gap between what your body feels right now and what it wants to feel. It is this gap between your current state and your desired state that prompts you to take action.
Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Even the most insignificant act contains a slight shade of motivation – to feel different from the present moment. If you’re constantly eating or smoking or scrolling through social media, what you really want isn’t chips, a cigarette, or a bunch of likes. Your true desire is to feel different.
Our feelings tell us whether to stay in our current state or change it. They push us in one direction or another. They help us choose the best approach. Neuroscientists have discovered that when emotions and feelings are in conflict, we lose our ability to make decisions. We don’t get any signal of what to aim for and what to avoid. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “It is emotion that allows you to label things as good, bad or neutral.”