Why Do We Want What We Can’t Have? (18 Reasons to Ponder)

Isn’t it strange how we’re always tempted by what we can’t have? It’s as if life’s biggest tease is putting the best stuff just out of reach.

It seems like there’s something extra special about the things just out of our reach—a new gadget, a job promotion, or a person. What’s really the deal with that? Why does “unavailable” often translate to “irresistible” in our minds?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at why this happens. We’ll break down the reasons and see how our minds work in these situations. Curious to know why we’re drawn to what we can’t have and if chasing these desires is worth it? Let’s find out together.

We Think It Will Make Us Happy

Chasing after what we can’t have often seems like a surefire path to happiness. We convince ourselves that once we snag that elusive job or get the attention of that person who barely knows we exist, happiness is just a step away.

But more often than not, once we get what we’ve longed for, the happiness we anticipated doesn’t last.

You see, there’s this thing called the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s a fancy way of saying that once the novelty wears off, we are often left feeling the same as before or sometimes even a bit emptier. 

In our hearts, we know this to be true. Think about the last gadget you saved up for or that trendy item you couldn’t stop thinking about. Wasn’t the excitement about acquiring it more intense than the actual ownership? That cycle keeps us running after the next “big thing,” hoping it will fill the void.

It’s a gentle reminder, really, to focus on sustainable sources of happiness that don’t rely on ‘ifs’ and ‘whens’. Let’s try shifting our gaze from the distant horizon to the beauty around us. It might just surprise us how much good is already within our grasp!

It’s Human Nature To Feel Jealous And To Desire Things

All of us have those moments when we get a bit green with envy. It’s perfectly normal! Our brains are wired to notice what others have, especially if it’s something we want.

Yet, despite its universality, jealousy isn’t the best advisor. It often nudges us to chase after things just because someone else has them—not because we genuinely need or even want them.

It’s like wanting that slice of cake just because your brother got the biggest piece. Ask yourself: “Did you really want it that much, or did you just want the biggest piece on your plate?”

"The human mind always seeks pleasure. Most of the time, this pleasure comes from external sources. No matter what you have, if the other person has something that you don’t have, you’ll naturally want it.

Mostly this happens because you lay excessive emphasis on what’s happening outside rather than concentrating on yourself.

For instance, if you have a decent watch and your friend pops up with a Rolex watch, even though you can’t afford it, you’ll start craving for it. The watch you own no longer makes sense to you just because your friend has a better watch.

It’s worth noting that both the watches tell the same time. There’s absolutely no difference. But our brains are wired in a way that shrouds this fact. Pleasure can take many forms, and it includes money, fame, power, love, etc."

Max Harland | CEO, Dentaly

Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)

FOMO is something that’s pretty much become a default setting for many of us, especially with social media showcasing everyone’s highlight reels.

But those perfect moments are often just snapshots of reality, not the whole picture. We don’t see the behind-the-scenes struggles, the mundane, or the outtakes. So, while you’re worrying about missing out, remember others are worrying about the same thing too.

One fun trick to deal with FOMO is to create your own “highlights.” When you focus on making your own life richer, FOMO starts to lose its grip.

  • Plan small joys and adventures for yourself, even if it’s just a cozy movie night or trying a new coffee shop.
  • Celebrate your own moments, however small they might seem.

Things We Can’t Have Are Perceived To Have More Value

It’s fascinating how our brains work, isn’t it? We often place higher value on the things that are out of our reach. Whether it’s a limited-edition sneaker or an unattainable romantic interest, the more elusive it is, the more we convince ourselves it’s worth having.

This perception of increased value comes from a mix of curiosity and what-if scenarios we build in our heads. We start imagining how amazing our lives would be if only we had that one thing. Funny enough, this phenomenon doesn’t just apply to material stuff. It can be anything—opportunities, relationships, or experiences.

The Scarcity Principle

When something is limited or running out, our brains kick into overdrive, making us want it even more. Think about the last time you saw a “Limited offer, grab it now!” —didn’t it kind of make you want to buy it immediately? That’s the scarcity principle at work.

Let’s unpack this a bit:

  • Urgency: Limited-time offers create a sense of urgency, pushing us to act now rather than later.
  • Exclusivity: If something is scarce, owning it can make us feel special or elite.
  • Competition: Knowing others also want the same limited item can drive us to compete, intensifying our desire even more.

So, knowing this, how do we overcome the scarcity trap? Ask yourself if you genuinely want or need the item or if you’re just feeling pressured by the ticking clock. Sometimes, taking a step back and giving yourself a cooling-off period can help you make more rational decisions.

Remember, just because something is scarce doesn’t always mean it’s valuable to you.

The Forbidden Fruit Effect

The moment someone tells us we can’t have something, it instantly becomes ten times more appealing. It’s almost like a direct challenge. “Oh, I shouldn’t? Watch me try even harder to get it!”

Here’s how it typically unfolds:

  • First up, when something is off-limits, our curiosity goes through the roof. What’s so special about it that it’s forbidden?
  • Then, there’s the thrill of the chase, which can be exciting and a bit addictive. It feels like a game.
  • Lastly, if we manage to obtain that forbidden item, it often gives us a sense of achievement that ordinary items don’t.

When you find yourself obsessing over the forbidden, remind yourself why it’s out of reach in the first place. Is it really worth it?

Sometimes, not having something might be a blessing in disguise. Instead of focusing on what you can’t have, shift your attention to what you can—and make the most of it!

Grass-Is-Greener Syndrome

You know that feeling when you look over at someone else’s lawn and think it looks greener and more lush than your own? This Grass-Is-Greener mindset isn’t just about lawns—it’s a common human experience. 

We’re often convinced that what others have is better than what’s in our own lives, especially when we’re feeling dissatisfied or restless. It feeds right into that longing for things we can’t have because, from afar, everything looks perfect.

Well, every lawn, no matter how green, has its own share of weeds. By always looking over the fence, we miss the beauty and potential of our own space. It might just need a little care or a new perspective to shine. Sometimes, the best ‘grass’ is right beneath our feet!

The Thrill Of The Chase

There’s something incredibly exciting about the pursuit itself. Whether it’s pursuing a difficult-to-get job or wooing someone who’s hard to win over—the thrill of the chase can be quite exhilarating.

It taps into our innate love for a challenge, our competitive spirit, and perhaps a bit of our ego too. Here’s what usually happens:

  • Challenge: The harder the goal, the sweeter the victory seems in prospect.
  • Excitement: The unpredictability and the ups and downs keep us energized and engaged.
  • Achievement: Getting what’s hard to get can feel like a personal triumph.

However, the thrill often lies more in the pursuit than the prize itself. Once the chase is over, the allure might fade, leaving us wondering why we wanted it so badly. Embrace the thrill, but also make sure to appreciate the destination once you get there.

It Boosts Our Self-Confidence

There’s something so electrifying about achieving the seemingly impossible. It’s like climbing a mountain and finally reaching the summit. The view, the sense of accomplishment, the sheer relief—it all comes in waves.

When we set our eyes on something that feels out of reach and eventually grasp it, that victory doesn’t just sit lightly on our shoulders. It seeps deep into our being and gives our self-confidence a major boost.

But hey, while it’s fantastic to aim high, balance is key. Don’t stress yourself out striving for the unattainable all the time. Celebrate your small victories just as much as the big ones. Remember, sometimes getting out of bed and facing the day is a big win in itself.

We Forget About The Beauty Of Current Moment

Life moves fast, and we often get caught up in the whirlwind of what’s next. It’s like we have a hard time pausing and appreciating the here and now. And in that rush, we miss out on the beauty that’s right in front of us.

The present moment is genuinely all we have—it’s where life happens. When we focus too much on what we don’t have or what might be, we rob ourselves of enjoying what’s already in our grasp.

So, the next time you catch yourself peering over the horizon for happiness, take a moment to look around. Appreciate a good meal, the comfort of your favorite chair, or the reliability of an old friend. These are the true treasures that enrich our lives—no chasing necessary.

Social Approval

We humans are social creatures, and seeking approval from others is deeply ingrained in us. From a young age, we crave validation—a pat on the back, a nod of approval, or a simple “Good job!” It makes us feel seen and appreciated.

And oh boy, with today’s social media world, the need for social approval has ramped up to a whole new level. Getting likes, comments, and shares can feel like a digital applause, and who doesn’t like that? It’s easy to get hooked on that little dopamine rush.

But if we constantly chase external validation, we risk losing touch with our inner sense of worth. Our self-esteem shouldn’t solely hinge on how others perceive us—it’s a shaky foundation that can crumble fast.

"Let's say I run a business. All of my friends are other successful business owners. They take their families to the Caymans for vacation and drive Teslas.

Unbeknownst to them, my business isn't doing so great. But I've been vacationing with them for years and would be mortified if they knew I was going broke. So they invite me on our annual vacation, and I go.

I can't afford to go—I shouldn't go—but I want to maintain this persona that I've created. In my head, not going would be devastating, worse than being in debt."

Meera Meyer, CFP | Financial Coach and Financial Planner | President and Owner, Life Money Balance

Influence Of Media And Advertising

We live in a world saturated with media and advertising. Everywhere we look—billboards, TV screens, social media feeds – we’re bombarded with messages telling us what we should want.

Let’s face it: Advertisers are pretty good at their jobs. They know exactly how to push our buttons and make us feel like we’re missing out.

They create shiny, idealized images of products and lifestyles, presenting them as the ultimate solution to our problems. A glamorous car will make us cooler, an exotic vacation will make us happier, a trendy outfit will make us more attractive.

It’s a constant cycle of desire and consumption.

Next time you feel that urge to buy something right after seeing an ad, it might be helpful to step back and ask: “Do I really need this, or am I being swept up by the hype?”

Unresolved Childhood Needs

Our childhood holds the keys to many of our adult behaviors, including our desires and what we yearn for. Often, the things we didn’t get as children—be it emotional support, material items, or even experiences—can manifest as persistent wants in our adult lives.

Here’s how these unresolved needs might influence us:

  • We might crave things that compensate for what we missed out on.
  • Sometimes, we chase experiences that try to recreate positive childhood memories.
  • We might aim to achieve things we think will ‘fix’ past deprivations.

Recognizing these patterns can be quite enlightening, as it helps us understand the deeper reasons behind our desires. By addressing these unresolved needs, we can find more wholesome ways to meet them instead of chasing shadows of the past.

Emotional Attachment To Past Experiences

Our past experiences, especially the impactful ones, can tether us emotionally to things we find hard to obtain now. This attachment often influences our current desires, making us believe that acquiring similar things or reliving similar experiences will recreate the happiness we once felt.

Learning to let go of these attachments can free us to make choices based on what truly meets our needs today, not just attempts to relive the past. It allows us to grow and find new sources of joy and satisfaction, shaping a future that’s influenced by, but not handcuffed to, our past.

Because Of Greed

At its core, greed is an intense desire for more of something than is actually needed—more gadgets, more clothes, more everything. There’s this insatiable itch that just can’t seem to be scratched.

This drive for excess can sometimes push us to long for things we can’t have simply because we want more and more. However, this approach can often leave us feeling empty, as the more we get, the more we seem to want—creating a loop of perpetual dissatisfaction.

We Want To Fulfill A Fantasy

We all have them, those perfect scenarios we dream up when reality gets a bit too mundane. Maybe it’s the idea of living in a quaint cottage in the countryside, dating a movie star, or landing a job that feels too good to be true.

These fantasies give us a taste of something extraordinary, a sneak peek into a life that seems magical and far removed from our everyday routine.

Our real lives, with their flaws and imperfections, can’t quite compete with the polished and perfect scenes in our minds. So, we chase those dreams, hoping that attaining them will turn our lives into the fairy tales we envision.

It’s important to enjoy our fantasies but also to keep our feet firmly planted in reality. Use your dreams as inspiration, but recognize that real life, with all its messiness, has its own beauty and excitement.

It Will Satisfy Our Ego

Our egos—they often whisper in our ears that having that thing will finally make us feel important, admired, or superior. It’s like a little voice inside us saying, “This will show the world what you’re made of.”

And let’s be real, sometimes our egos can be quite persuasive.

The thing is, satisfying our egos with external stuff can be a bit of a trap. Sure, buying that expensive car or snagging that high-status job can make us feel on top of the world—for a while. But soon enough, the thrill wears off, leaving us searching for the next big thing to boost our self-esteem. It’s a never-ending cycle that rarely brings true, lasting happiness.

Taking a moment to reflect on why we want something—whether it’s truly for ourselves or to impress others—can save us from endless chasing. It’s about finding value in who we are, not just in what we own or achieve.

We Have Restricted Ourselves Too Much

Sometimes, we set so many restrictions in our lives—maybe in an attempt to be disciplined or to adhere strictly to certain values—that we end up feeling boxed in.

What happens next is interesting: we start rebelling against our own rules.

It’s human nature to crave freedom and autonomy, and when we feel these are being stifled—even by our own doing—we react. This rebellion can make us want the very things we’ve sworn off purely because they represent the freedom we feel we’ve lost.

The more we say “no,” the louder the “yes” becomes in our minds.

"Let's say I am trying to save more money. I tell myself that I am not going to order DoorDash at all anymore. I spent $600 on DoorDash last month! Man, it'll be so easy to save money if I just stop using DoorDash.

The next day, the first thing I think of is how nice it would be to DoorDash some sushi. I just can't get it out of my head. Now I'm in this battle between wanting to save money and just wanting my life to be easy.

By telling myself I can't order DoorDash, I'm effectively setting myself up for failure: Either I don't DoorDash and feel disappointed that I don't have the food I want, or I do DoorDash and feel guilty for failing to meet my goal.

How to counteract these problems: Don't tell yourself that you can't have it

The best method to use for this type of wanting is delayed gratification, meaning I tell myself I can have that thing… later.

So I would say, "If I can make it through the week cooking food at home, on Friday, I can order sushi on DoorDash."

The second you permit yourself to have the thing that you want, you'll find that you want it a lot less, and it'll be so much easier to cook at home knowing that on Friday you get to put your feet up and let the food come to you."

Meera Meyer, CFP | Financial Coach and Financial Planner | President and Owner, Life Money Balance

Final Thoughts

Desiring what we can’t have is a common part of the human experience. It’s driven by curiosity, societal pressures, and our own psychology. But knowing why we feel this way can help us manage our feelings and focus on what truly matters.

The important thing is to understand what drives these feelings. When you know what’s behind your cravings, you can make better choices about what truly matters to you.

So, take a moment to appreciate what you already have. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they seem. Life is about balance—dreaming of what’s next while enjoying what’s now.

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Clariza is a passionate writer and editor who firmly believes that words have great power. She has a degree in BS Psychology, which gives her an in-depth understanding of the complexities of human behavior. As a woman of science and art, she fused her love for both fields in crafting insightful articles on lifestyle, mental health, and social justice to inspire others and advocate for change.

In her leisure time, you can find her sitting in the corner of her favorite coffee shop downtown, deeply immersed in her bubble of thoughts. Being an art enthusiast that she is, she finds bliss in exploring the rich world of fiction writing and diverse art forms.