Recently I was listening to a popular music streaming app, and on came “You can’t always get what you want” by the Rolling stones. Hearing it inspired me to write an article about this very simple concept, as no matter how much you plan, how hard you work, or how much money you have, there will still be times when you can't get what you want.
It's almost impossible to watch TV or go outside without adverts encouraging you to want more, earn more and spend more. We live in a consumer society, which makes it important for us to want things. If no-one wanted for anything then all those businesses precariously balanced upon our consumer needs would fail, and perhaps bring the whole system down on our heads. One problem with this system is that it makes us believe we should always be able to get what we want, ideally with next day delivery.
'You can’t Always get what you want, and that’s a good thing.'
I'm not suggesting we shouldn't want things at all. A desire to explore, to want growth and change is implicit in human nature. Without it we’d never have sailed uncertain seas, explored uncharted lands, or set foot upon the moon. But it’s also normal that we don't always get what we want. When Christopher Columbus set off in 1492 he wanted to find a westerly sea passage to China and India. What he stumbled upon was the Americas. He didn’t get what he wanted, but he’s still remembered for his discoveries more than 500 years later. So perhaps Columbus got what he needed.
It can be hard to accept life’s boundaries and limitations, but if we look at children we can see that such limits are important. Has anyone spent any time with a child whose parent or carer hasn’t taught them boundaries? How would it be to raise a child who always gets everything they want, who has never been told ‘no’? This seems the quickest way to create a monster, one that never has to weigh up the views of others, to compromise and consider the perspective of others. Life is a compromise, and learning to accept our limitations helps us develop self-control, patience and tolerance.
'The problem with only focusing on what you want is that your attention turns to what you're missing'
The problem with only focusing on what you want is that your attention turns to what you're missing. You become acutely aware of what you lack, with scant attention paid to the things you have. It doesn't grow gratefulness in what you already possess. And objectively, we possess so much. Fifty years ago we didn’t need storage units or overflowing garages to store all of our junk, we just didn’t have so many things. You only have to ask your parents or grandparents what they used to own to find out that they survived with far less.
There's also a difference between what we want and what we actually need. Perhaps you want a great job, a big house or a nice car. Is this because you deeply need it, or because someone else has it? It might turn out that what you really need is more challenge in your current job, a simple home that’s convenient for work, and a reliable car that doesn't add to your stress on a busy workday. What you actually need is often less exciting than what you want.
Boundaries are important. Life is limited. It's healthy that we don't get what we want all the time. Accepting this fact helps us to be grateful for what we have, to accept what we don't, to mourn our losses, and to make the most of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
You can’t always get what you want. Thank goodness.
Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.