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Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome. The same sense is expressed by emotions such as "craving" or "hankering". When a person desires something or someone, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the thought of the item or person, and they want to take actions to obtain their goal. The motivational aspect of desire has long been noted by philosophers; Hobbes (1588 – 1679) asserted that human desire is the fundamental motivation of all human action.

For lessons on the topic of Desire, follow this link.

In Buddhism, for an individual to effect his or her liberation, the flow of sense-desire must be cut completely; however, while training, he or she must work with motivational processes based on skilfully applied desire.[1] The Buddha stated, according to the early Buddhist scriptures, that monks should "generate desire" for the sake of fostering skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful ones.[2]

While desires are often classified as emotions by laypersons, psychologists often describe desires as different from emotions; psychologists tend to argue that desires arise from bodily structures, such as the stomach's need for food, whereas emotions arise from a person's mental state. Marketing and advertising companies have used psychological research on how desire is stimulated to find more effective ways to induce consumers to buy a given product or service. While some advertising attempts to give buyers a sense of lack or wanting, other types of advertising create desire associating the product with desirable attributes, either by showing a celebrity or model with the product.

The theme of desire is at the core of the romance novel, which often create drama by showing cases where human desire is impeded by social conventions, class, or cultural barriers. As well, it is used in other literary genres, such as gothic novels such as Dracula by Bram Stoker, in which desire is mingled with fear and dread. Poets ranging from W.B. Yeats to T. S. Eliot have dealt with the themes of desire in their work. Just as desire is central to the written fiction genre of romance, it is the central theme of melodrama films, which use plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience by showing "crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship", in which desire is thwarted or unrequited.

In philosophy

In philosophy, desire' has been identified as a philosophical problem since Antiquity. In Plato's The Republic, he argues that individual desires must be postponed in the name of the higher ideal. In Aristotle's De Anima, he claims that desire is implicated in animal interactions and the propensity of animals to motion; at the same time, he acknowledges that reasoning also interacts with desire. Hobbes (1588 – 1679) proposed the concept of psychological hedonism, which asserts that the "fundamental motivation of all human action is the desire for pleasure." Spinoza (1632 – 1677) had a view which contrasted with Hobbes, in that "he saw natural desires as a form of bondage" that are not chosen by a person of their own free will. Hume (1711 – 1776)[1] claimed that desires and passions are noncognitive, automatic bodily responses, and he argued that reasoning is "capable only of devising means to ends set by [bodily] desire".[3]

Kant (1724 – 1804) "called any action based on desires a hypothetical imperative, meaning by this that it is a command of reason that applies only if one desires the goal in question. [4]Kant also established a relation between the beautiful and pleasure in Critique of Judgment. Hegel claimed that "self-consciousness is desire."

Because desire can cause humans to become obsessed and embittered, it has been called one of the causes of woe for mankind.[5] Within the teachings of Buddhism, craving is thought to be the cause of all suffering that one experiences in human existence. The eradication of craving leads one to ultimate happiness, or Nirvana. Desire for wholesome things, though, is liberating and enhancing.[6] While the stream of desire for sense-pleasures must be cut eventually, a practitioner on the path to liberation is encouraged by the Buddha to "generate desire" for the fostering of skillful qualities and the abandoning of unskillful ones.[2]

Scientific perspectives

Psychology and neurology

While desires are often classified as emotions by laypersons, psychologists often describe desires as different from emotions. For psychologists, desires arise from bodily structures, such as the stomach which needs food, the blood needs oxygen, and so on; on the other hand, emotions arise from a person's mental state. A 2008 study by the University of Michigan indicated that while humans experience desire and fear as psychological opposites, they share the same brain circuit. [7] A 2008 study entitled "The Neural Correlates of Desire" showed that the human brain categorizes any stimulus according to its desirability by activating three different brain areas: the superior orbito-frontal, the mid-cingulate, and the anterior cingulate cortices. [8]

While the "neuroscience of happiness and well-being is still in its infancy", research on the "distant cousins" of pleasure and desire show that reward is a key element in creating both of these states. Studies showed that a chemical called dopamine is the brain's "pleasure chemical". Research also shows that the orbitofrontal cortex has connections to both the opioid and dopamine systems, and stimulating this cortex is associated with subjective reports of pleasure.[9]


Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), who is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and the defense mechanism of repression and for creating the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, proposed the notion of the Oedipus Complex, which argues that desire for the mother creates neuroses in their sons. Freud used the Greek myth of Oedipus to argue that people desire incest and must repress that desire. He claimed that children pass through several stages, including a stage in which they fixated on the mother as a sexual object.

French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) argues that desire first occurs during a "mirror phase" of a baby's development, when the baby sees an image of wholeness in a mirror which gives them a desire for that being. As a person matures, Lacan claims that they still feel separated from themselves by language, which is incomplete, and so a person continually strives to become whole. He uses the term "jouissance" to refer to the lost object or feeling of absence which a person believes to be unobtainable. For more details on the Lacanian conception of desire, see desire (psychoanalysis)

In marketing

In the field of marketing, desire is the human appetite for a given object of attention. Desire for a product is stimulated by advertising, which attempts to give buyers a sense of lack or wanting. In store retailing, merchants attempt to increase the desire of the buyer by showcasing the product attractively, in the case of clothes or jewelery, or, for food stores, by offering samples. With print, TV, and radio advertising, desire is created by giving the potential buyer a sense of lacking ("Are you still driving that old car?") or by associating the product with desirable attributes, either by showing a celebrity using or wearing the product, or by giving the product a "halo effect" by showing attractive models with the product. Nike's "Just Do It" ads for sports shoes are appealing to consumers' desires for self-betterment.

In some cases, the potential buyer already has the desire for the product before they enter the store, as in the case of a decorating buff entering their favorite furniture store. The role of the salespeople in these cases is simply to guide the customer towards making a choice; they do not have to try and "sell" the general idea of making a purchase, because the customer already wants the products. In other cases, the potential buyer does not have a desire for the product or service, and so the company has to create the sense of desire. An example of this situation is for life insurance. Most young adults are not thinking about dying, so they are not naturally thinking about how they need to have accidental death insurance. Life insurance companies, though, have managed to create a desire for life insurance with advertising that shows pictures of children and asks "If anything happens to you, who will pay for the children's upkeep?".

Another example is personal hygiene products, such as anti-dandruff shampoo and mouthwash. Prior to the introduction of commercials advertising anti-dandruff shampoo or mouthwash, it is unlikely that consumers had an intrinsic desire to use these products. However, after seeing commercials depicting the social undesirability of flakes on the shoulder, or of bad breath, it created a desire to resolve these fears. Marketing theorists call desire the third stage in the hierarchy of effects, which occurs when the buyer develops a sense that if they felt the need for the type of product in question, the advertised product is what would quench their desire. [10]

In fiction, film, and art


The theme of desire is at the core of the romance novel. Novels which are based around the theme of desire, which can range from a long aching feeling to an unstoppable torrent, include Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the sensual, yet controversial novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Dracula by Bram Stoker. Brontë's characterization of Jane Eyre depicts her as torn by an inner conflict between reason and desire, because "customs" and "conventionalities" stand in the way of her romantic desires.[11] E.M. Forster's novels use homoerotic codes to describe same-sex desire and longing. Close male friendships with subtle homoerotic undercurrents occur in every novel, which subverts the conventional, heterosexual plot of the novels. [12] In the gothic-themed Dracula, Stoker depicts the theme of desire which is coupled with fear. When the Lucy character is seduced by Dracula, she describes her sensations in the graveyard as a mixture of fear and blissful emotion.

Poet W.B. Yeats depicts the positive and negative aspects of desire in his poems such as “The Rose for the World,” “Adam’s Curse,” “No Second Troy,” “All Things can Tempt me,” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” . Some poems depict desire as a poison for the soul; Yeats worked through his desire for his beloved, Maud Gonne, and realized that “Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us”. In “The Rose for the World,” he admires her beauty, but feels pain because he cannot be with her. In the poem “No Second Troy,” Yeats overflows with anger and bitterness because of their unrequited love. [13] Poet T. S. Eliot dealt with the themes of desire and homoeroticism in his poetry, prose and drama. [14] Other poems on the theme of desire include John Donne's poem "To His Mistress Going to Bed", Carol Ann Duffy's longings in "Warming Her Pearls; Ted Hughes' "Lovesong" about the savage intensity of desire; and Wendy Cope's humorous poem "Song".

Philippe Borgeaud's novels analyse how emotions such as erotic desire and seduction are connected to fear and wrath by examining cases where people are worried about issues of impurity, sin, and shame.


Just as desire is central to the written fiction genre of romance, it is the central theme of melodrama films, which are a subgenre of the drama film. Like drama, a melodrama depends mostly on in-depth character development, interaction, and highly emotional themes. Melodramatic films tend to use plots that appeal to the heightened emotions of the audience. Melodramatic plots often deal with "crises of human emotion, failed romance or friendship, strained familial situations, tragedy, illness, neuroses, or emotional and physical hardship." Film critics sometimes use the term "pejoratively to connote an unrealistic, bathos-filled, campy tale of romance or domestic situations with stereotypical characters (often including a central female character) that would directly appeal to feminine audiences."[15] Also called "women's movies", "weepies", tearjerkers, or "chick flicks".

“Melodrama…is Hollywood’s fairly consistent way of treating desire and subject identity”, as can be seen in well-known films such as Gone With the Wind , in which "desire is the driving force for both Scarlett and the hero, Rhett". Scarlett desires love, money, the attention of men, and the vision of being a virtuous “true lady”. Rhett Butler desires to be with Scarlett, which builds to a burning longing that is ultimately his undoing, because Scarlett keeps refuses his advances; when she finally confesses her secret desire, Rhett is worn out and his longing is spent [16]

In Cathy Cupitt's article on "Desire and Vision in Blade Runner", she argues that film, as a "visual narrative form, plays with the voyeuristic desires of its audience". Focusing on the dystopian 1980s science fiction film Blade Runner, she calls the film an "Object of Visual Desire", in which it plays to an "expectation of an audience's delight in visual texture, with the 'retro-fitted' spectacle of the post-modern city to ogle" and with the use of the "motif of the 'eye'". In the film, "desire is a key motivating influence on the narrative of the film, both in the 'real world', and within the text."[17]


  1. Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Thought and Imagery in Theravada Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1982, page 251: "In the end, the flowing streams of sense-desire must be 'cut' or 'crossed' completely; nevertheless, for the duration of the Path, a monk must perforce work with motivational and perceptual processes as they ordinarily are, that is to say, based on desire ... Thus, during mental training, the stream is not to be 'cut' immediately, but guided, like water along viaducts. The meditative steadying of the mind by counting in- and out-breaths (in the mindfulness of breathing) is compared to the steadying of a boat in 'a fierce current' by its rudder. The disturbance of the flow of a mountain stream by irrigation channels cut into its sides it used to illustrate the weakening of insight by the five 'hindrances'."
  2. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "The Wings to Awakening," [1]. See specifically this section.
  3. Ethics Chapter. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy CD-ROM, V. 1.0, London: Routledge Edward Craig (ed). "Morality and emotions". By Martha C. Nussbaum
  5. Hagen, Steve. Buddhism Plain and Simple. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
  6. Charles S. Prebish, and Damien Keown, Buddhism - the EBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, 2005, page 83.
  7. Changing stress levels can make brain flip from ‘desire’ to ‘dread’ Mar. 19, 2008
  8. Kawabata H, Zeki S (2008) The Neural Correlates of Desire. PLoS ONE 3(8): e3027. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003027
  11. Desire, Class Position, and Gender in Jane Eyre and Pickwick Papers Benjamin Graves '97 (English 73 Brown University, 1996)
  12. Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction (Sexuality and Literature) by Parminder Kaur Bakshi
  14. Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot. Edited by Cassandra Laity. Drew University, New Jersey. Nancy K. Gish. University of Southern Maine (ISBN 9780521806886 | ISBN 0521806887)
  15. Melodrama Films
  17. Eyeballing the Simulacra Desire and Vision in Blade Runner. By Cathy Cupitt