Wanting and liking: never forget the difference

22 March 2018

Wanting something is different from liking something. It’s an important distinction we should never forget.

Liking, as Dan Gilbert and Timothy Wilson put it in their terrific (and important) paper Miswanting, relates to “how a thing makes us feel”.

Wanting, on the other hand, is “a prediction of [how a thing will make us feel]”.

One of the biggest challenges in modern life is to distinguish between the things that we like, from the things we want.

Maybe in the distant past there was a reliable connection between the two.

But now, there are many things we want but don’t particularly like. And there are many things we like but don’t always want.

In other words, we can be terrible at forecasting what we’ll like. But most of our behaviour is driven by wanting. Or “seeking” – which is largely fuelled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, one of the great engines of human motivation (not satisfaction).

We live in a world where billion dollar companies (such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube) hire the best and brightest to encourage us to “engage” with their streams. Other companies, such as Apple, are masterful at making us feel a physical pang for their new products. (Guilty as charged.)

But these things, and many of the things we want, are not necessarily the things that we actually like. 

I don’t mean “like” in the Facebook sense of the world. Spending time on electronic pages that never end, like Facebook’s Newsfeed. Versus actually spending time, in physical space, with our closest friends and family members.

Buying the latest gadget versus an experience that we can share with our partner – or even having the money in the bank, knowing it’s there for a rainy day or to provide us with more flexibility and autonomy in our day-to-day life.

There are so many things in life that we want. What we need to remember is what we like.

Wanting and liking: never forget the difference.


happiness, liking, wanting

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

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