A crude simplification of an important part of Buddhist thought is that desire is the root cause of all suffering. There are many nuances to this, with the central theme being that attachment to one's desires is the root cause of all suffering.
Based on both my lived experience and my reflections, I think that neither desire nor attachment to desire would, on their own, lead to significant suffering in most cases. Rather, I've found one key ingredient that often significantly increases suffering (and a range of negative emotions): entitlement to the fulfillment of one's desires.
In this post, I'll look at the idea of entitlement and why I think entitlement is a key amplifier of negative thoughts. I'll explore related ideas. I'll also look at ways to reduce one's sense of entitlement without (necessarily) reducing the intensity of one's desires. This is probably important because for many people (and to some extent, for myself as well) experiencing desires intensely is a key part of a life well-lived, so trying to tamp down one's desires in order to tamp down one's suffering isn't a worthwhile trade-off.
Entitlement has a crucial role as amplifier of negative emotions
Desire for something can be thought of as having a really strong preference for it, relative to the alternative. For instance, when I'm hungry, I have a strong preference for eating relative to the alternative of not eating.
Attachment to desire can mean a few different things; my own interpretation is that it means that the desire is very salient in the mind of the person desiring, and the person is unwilling or unable to alter the desire (e.g., by cultivating a preference for other options).
Entitlement is a belief that one "deserves" or "is owed by (specific people, or the world at large)" the fulfillment of a desire. For instance, if I'm feeling hungry, I have a strong desire for food, but that doesn't necessarily make me feel entitled to food. How might I feel entitled to food? For instance, I might believe that my housemates who are using the kitchen right now for their own food prep should vacate the kitchen so I can fulfill my desire for food. Or I might believe that my family members, or my past self, should have kept the refrigerator well-stocked so my present self wouldn't have to go hungry.
Based on these simple examples (and other similar ones) my sense is that desire and attachment to desire can lead to suffering and pain that is strictly local and limited to the desire. This kind of pain is a cognitive equivalent of the acute physical pain you may feel when you injure yourself physically.
However, entitlement can greatly amplify and delocalize the suffering. Rather than just the local suffering that comes from hunger, or a craving for caffeine, or a build-up of urine, or whatever, you're now feeling frustration and anger at other people, at your past self, or at the world at large.
Intellectual exploration of ideas related to entitlement
Justified and unjustified entitlement: even justified entitlement is bad
In some cases, one's sense of entitlement may be "justified" in the sense that one has some well-recognized claim to the thing one feels entitled to. For instance, you may feel entitled to not being physically beaten up, and most likely you're living in a jurisdiction where widely understood social norms and legal codes forbid others from beating you up. Or, you may feel entitled to getting a certain quality of service from your Internet service provider, and there may be clauses in the contract or understandings in common law that do support that.
On the other hand, sometimes the specific things one feels entitled to may be in a gray area between justified and unjustified -- there isn't wide agreement that one has claims on those things. For instance, you may feel entitled to not having to listen to your neighbor's music, but others in the area you live in may not consider this a claim you can reasonably expect to be fulfilled.
There are also cases where one feels entitled despite it being completely unjustified, even in the mind of the person who feels entitled. For instance, you may expect your spouse or parent to magically figure out and fulfill your needs even before you know them.
A lot of the conventional wisdom around entitlement centers around trying to figure out if it is justified or unjustified. This is most often seen, for instance, when you go to a friend for advice. Honest friends will usually point out to you when they think that your sense of entitlement is unjustified, and help you readjust. But even honest, well-meaning friends will often loyally defend your right to feel upset and frustrated and suffer, if they think that your entitlement is justified.
For this reason, in many ways, unjustified entitlement can be self-correcting through feedback loops that help you snap out of it. But justified entitlement can be self-perpetuating. When you're in the right, there will be few to dissuade you from feeling upset, indignant, frustrated, and angry that you're not getting what you expect.
The flip side to this is that justified entitlement has a greater chance of having its "root cause" fixed; for instance, if you feel justified anger that your housemate beat you up, your friends who tell you this may offer you a place to stay to get out of the housemate situation, and a court may grant you a restraining order on your housemate. And it's also possible that the fact that friends and society at large are willing to hear you out and take your side, in and of itself, diffuses the negative thoughts you feel (even if it only enhances your sense of entitlement).
Entitlement and the endowment effect and loss aversion
The endowment effect is an effect whereby we value things more once we have ownership of them. A closely related idea is that of loss aversion -- we value gains much less than we value the cost of the corresponding losses.
One numerical way to estimate the endowment effect is through what's called the WTA/WTP gap: the gap between willingness to accept (WTA) to sell something you already own, versus willingness to pay (WTP) to acquire it in the first place. For instance, you may be willing to pay just $100 for a desk (so WTP = $100), but once the desk has been installed in your room and you're using it regularly, you may not be willing to sell it for less than $300 (so WTA = $300). The WTA/WTP gap of $300 - $100 = $200 is an estimate of the endowment effect.
The concepts of endowment effect and loss aversion seem somewhat linked to entitlement, though they're not identical: entitlement is more of an emotional (moralistic) state whereas the endowment effect is more about eventual preferences. Entitlement offers one candidate explanation for the endowment effect: after we acquire something, we self-servingly develop a theory for how we're entitled to it, and that sense of entitlement increases its perceived value to us. I'm not sure this is the most likely explanation, though.
Entitlement and the hedonic treadmill
The hedonic treadmill is this phenomenon where as our well-being (such as our health, wealth, and wisdom) change, our expectations adjust accordingly, so our overall level of happiness or life satisfaction doesn't change, or at least doesn't change as much. Hedonic treadmills cut both ways: as people get wealthier over time, their happiness doesn't go up as much as the initial happiness they would have gotten right after a sudden increase in wealth. On the flip side, when people lose money, or have a health issue, they initially feel very bad but over time they adjust.
The emotional state of entitlement is probably part (but not all) of what's going on here. Namely, as our well-being changes, we construct stories that justify and reinforce why we deserve and are entitled to our current level of well-being. This process of constructing stories takes time, so initially, when there's a major change to our financial or health status, we respond based on what we previously felt entitled to. That's why the hedonic treadmill takes some time. (Also in general adjusting upward is easier than adjusting downward).
Entitlement as tool/tactic/strategy: of rights and firebrands
One plausible story about entitlement is that it helps people fight for their rights and get better outcomes for themselves. The language of rights and entitlements is seen in political struggles through large swathes of history. This ties to ideas such as "speaking up" and "not being afraid" and "say it loud, say it proud."
Although the ideas are somewhat tangled, I believe that it's possible to find alternative, more effective sources of motivation to fight for things one believes in. At minimum, it should be possible to separate out one's "political anger", that one draws upon for political struggles, from a personal sense of entitlement. For instance, you may be campaigning against military conscription, and may, on the political stage, speak with anger and indignation, like a firebrand. This may be more effective than approaching the subject with a calm tone. But it's also important to firewall your own personal sense of entitlement from the political anger you express.
Entitlement and consumer mindset (versus producer mindset)
I think a sense of entitlement is tied heavily to a "consumer mindset" -- the mindset of somebody who thinks of the world as producing things for that person to enjoy. Not all consumer mindsets are entitled; for instance, one could have a highly appreciative consumer mindset. But entitled mindsets are usually a subset of consumer mindsets.
The contrasting mindset is a "producer mindset" where you're thinking: how is this being done behind the scenes, and how can we do this better? When you approach the problem of being hungry with a producer mindset, you think: what kind of food purchase cycle would make sure there's enough stuff in the fridge when I'm hungry? Producer mindsets are more constructive and less likely to lead to entitlement. (Excessive use of a producer mindset can have its own drawbacks; for instance, you might be perceived as a control freak, or a not-fun person. But specifically in the context of combating entitlement, producer mindset seems better.)
Alternatives to entitlement
What are some alternatives to feeling entitlement? If you've read so far, you may already have some guesses as to what I'm about to say. Some of it will be cliched, and hopefully some will be nontrivial.
"I am not entitled to anything" (the zero-entitlement position)
One (probably extreme) position is the zero-entitlement position. Basically: "I am not entitled to anything." This position does not deny the existence of desires or even cravings; it simply accepts that they exist, and also accepts that they may end up not getting fulfilled. This position does not preclude feeling great joy at the fulfillment of one's desires, or even sorrow at their non-fulfillment. But these feelings of joy and sorrow will be local and specific, in-the-moment experiences, rather than global, self-certified rationalizations of how one is entitled to feel.
How can one get to a zero-entitlement position? Probably, many of the standard techniques used to build mental strength (including mindfulness meditation and various self-help therapies starting from CBT) indirectly help here. Probably, executing on standard self-help techniques while thinking of the zero-entitlement position as one of the goals can help.
I'm definitely not at the zero-entitlement position, but I feel I've made progress moving in that direction. Other than self-help methods, one thing I think has been strangely helpful has been watching both fiction and documentaries that show people in much worse situations than my present life. One of my reactions to watching Squid Game was that I feel appreciative that I'm not in a world like that, where my survival depends on the outcome of a life-and-death contest.
Safety margins around one's sense of entitlement (reprogramming the hedonic treadmill)
A slightly less extreme position than zero-entitlement is to only feel entitled to some very basic things, way below one's current level. For instance, for a millionaire with a reasonably diversified portfolio, feeling entitled to having enough money to get food probably won't lead to frustration. The extent to which what one already has is comfortably above what one feels entitled to, is what I call the "safety margin."
Another aspect of safety margin, beyond one's current state, is the existence of recovery strategies. For instance, a millionaire who feels entitled to having enough money to buy food is probably in a good place, but so is somebody who may not be a millionaire but still has a range of strategies to deal with sudden loss of income and wealth.
Building safety margins is a form of reprogramming the hedonic treadmill; our hedonic treadmill tends to eschew safety margins by quickly adjusting our expectations to our reality. Building in a safety margin means that we yank away expectations from reality in a way that keeps a cushion/buffer that we can use up.
Redirecting entitlement to goal-oriented strategy (taking on the producer mindset)
Entitlement is a "consumer mindset" way of approaching a situation. If you can take the thing you feel entitled to, and then switch to a "producer mindset" then you can switch to a constructive, goal-oriented thought process of how you would go about achieving it. Even if you have trouble nipping your sense of entitlement in the bud, you may be able to effectively stop its worst effects if you can redirect from entitlement to strategy every time you get in the grip of entitlement.
Attitude of gratitude
While I think attitude of gratitude is a good idea in principle, I also think it's already well-known as an idea, and compared to some of the other things written here, it may even be overused. There's a lot of existing literature on attitude of gratitude, and I don't have much to add.
When thinking of the causes of one's suffering, it may help to think about the ways in which one's feelings of "entitlement" are contributing to the suffering, and how to address these feelings of entitlement. Focusing on combating entitlement can be a worthwhile compromise that helps reduce some of the worst outcomes of having strong intense desires, without letting go of the desires and associated intense experiences themselves. It is worth separating a personal, emotional moralistic sense of entitlement from more abstract concepts of one's rights as understood morally, socially, and legally. The former is almost always a liability, while the latter may be a tool for bettering one's own condition and that of society at large.
Closely related is envy (studied for quite some time; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmut_Schoeck#Envy:_A_Theory_of_Social_Behavior is a very common reference). I suspect that Envy is often a source of entitlement, or perhaps a distinct but related emotion of attachment to a counterfactual outcome.
The insight that generated this post is part of a process of discerning what is wholesome and what is unwholesome about desire. There's much more that is worthwhile in the same direction.
I'm curious to hear examples of other worthwhile things in the direction that you have in mind!
eg tracking where desires come from and where they go to. Figuring out the underlying tangle of multiple intents behind a desire, and figuring out how holding that desire makes you feel, what actions it suggests etc.
I would like to add that deliberately grieving and moving on from the paths you failed to take is also something that can help with happiness, reducing entitlement, and promoting efficient career-maximizing mental routines.
Somehow this has the same vibe as the posts from the Notes on Virtues sequence. I guess it defines an unnamed virtue that is defined by the absence of something, here entitlement, clinging, attachment.