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Can’t get no satisfaction

We spend our lives looking for contentment – but is it even possible? Understanding what satisfaction is and how we should respond when we feel as though it’s slipping away can help us navigate a path to greater happiness.

I didn’t think my life would turn out like this,” 39-year-old Maggie said. “I should have met my life partner by now, be in an upward-focused career, have a nice house and generally have my life in a better state.”

Pete’s version of the story is somewhat different: “It’s like I get no sense of satisfaction or fulfilment from what I thought I wanted,” he says. “I’m in a good career and I’m married, but I’m restless and unsettled. I feel like I’m halfway through my life going through the motions.”

Maggie’s dissatisfaction results from not getting what she wanted, and Pete’s results from getting what he wanted but realising it didn’t bring fulfilment. Underlying these stories is a similar sentiment: “This is not how it is supposed to be.”

This ideal of how it’s supposed to be can refer to anything: our close relationships, our relationship with food, our bodies, our sex lives, our children, our house, our friendships and our careers. Sooner or later, our ideal scenario does not match up with reality.

This in turn can lead to a sense of failure in people, and they may seek the help of a psychologist to get their lives back on track. But if someone as successful as Mick Jagger can’t get no satisfaction, how can ordinary people? The first step is to understand the problem.


In psychological studies, life satisfaction has been divided into parts: the emotional component, as in ‘how happy are you?’ and the cognitive component, as in ‘considering your life as a whole, how satisfied are you?’. In two life-satisfaction surveys, when people from Western countries were asked the latter question, the results showed on average they are three-quarters satisfied with their lives.

These two elements, the emotional and the cognitive, ask very different questions. A feeling of dissatisfaction can be a temporary state, such as booking a holiday and finding your expensive ‘seaside accommodation’ offers no more than a peek of the sea. A cognitive (thinking) sense that life is dissatisfying assumes you have weighed up all the positive and negative factors about your life as a whole and come to the ultimate conclusion it is mainly negative.

Studies reported in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology and the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2010 have tried to map life satisfaction with multiple variables. The results have been unsurprising in that they’ve generally found having work satisfaction, a particular personality (emotional stability) and a feeling of control over life, as well as getting enough sleep, is important to overall satisfaction. Research has also shown the more we regret, the less we are satisfied.

Dissatisfaction and malaise are common to all of us at some point. Hugh Laurie (of House fame) has been quoted as saying: 
“I don’t have a single complete show or movie or anything else that I could look at and say, ‘Nailed that one’. But endless dissatisfaction is, I suppose, what gets us 
out of bed in the morning.”

Laurie seems to be using his dissatisfaction as a means to accomplish more in his life. This is one way of handling it – using it as a catalyst for change. 


The film Up in the Air (2009), starring George Clooney, highlighted how the material satisfaction we think will bring us happiness often doesn’t. Similarly, the novel The Post-Birthday World (HarperCollins, 2007) by Lionel Shriver, follows a middle-aged woman dissatisfied with her routine; she follows her feelings into a different relationship and then looks at the outcomes from doing this compared with staying where she was (the book has two endings).

In both these stories, the protagonist reacts to their dissatisfaction, sometimes making things worse. So, how do we learn and grow from this common human emotion when it starts gnawing away? How do we make choices that heed its message, enabling us to respond effectively to it?

As humans, we are wired to want more. Using Pete as an example, first he wanted to get into a business degree course, following which he wanted a career that would satisfy his ambitions; then he wanted to be in a relationship, and after that, his attention turned to buying a house; he then wanted to build an overseas holiday into his life each year; and so on. Most of us can probably identify with a (short-lived) sense of achievement having reached a milestone, before we move on to working towards our next desire.

Recent neuroscience findings from the University of Michigan confirmed that what used to be known as our pleasure or reward circuits (think areas stimulated by drugs, gambling, sex and chocolate, as well as such things as praise, a kiss or a beautiful sunset) are actually two separate brain circuits: 
a ‘wanting’ circuit (fired by dopamine), 
and a ‘liking’ (opioid-based) circuit. When the wanting circuit goes awry, the wanted thing no longer brings enjoyment, and we have to increase the levels of activity/stimulant to get the same feeling, which is what happens with addictions.


We live in a world where consumer feedback is big business. Good hotels 
and restaurants routinely ask: “How 
is everything with your meal/stay?” 
This consumer focus is even finding 
its way into the public hospital system, at blood collection clinics and in doctors’ waiting rooms.

You’re taught it is possible to be satisfied, and this is what you should expect. If you’re unsatisfied, complain about it and get it fixed. While this may be part of our service culture, this has started to apply to people as well. Not satisfied with your relationship? Don’t worry, it’s just a matter of finding ‘the one’. Not satisfied with your job? Don’t worry, read a book on how to get total job satisfaction. Not satisfied with yourself? Read self-help books that promote the message everybody can succeed and achieve unlimited possibilities.

Be careful, though. These messages can also promote low self-esteem, as people try to work out what is wrong with them when they don’t have it all. The self-help literature, as distinct from the psychological literature, tends to perpetuate the myth you can succeed and have great relationships, and it’s your fault if you don’t.


Psychology research has long known of a phenomenon called the ‘hedonic treadmill’, first written about in 1971, which refers to people’s ability to adapt to their circumstances. Most famously, it was found that lottery winners weren’t happier than non-winners, and people with spinal cord injuries weren’t substantially less happy than those who could walk. While there have been some important revisions to the theory in recent years, it helps account for the small and transitory effect of new circumstances on people’s lives. We tend to make a mistake when we expect life circumstances (the bigger house, the new renovations) to effect a lasting increase on our satisfaction levels.

Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety (Vintage Books, 2005), has a talk on the TED website, where he points out “you can’t be successful at everything … you can’t have it all. Any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. Any wise life will accept that there’ll be an element where we are not succeeding.”

He goes on to say “our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own … They have been sucked in from other people, from TV, advertising, marketing – we are highly open to suggestion”. He advises to “make sure 
our ideas of success are our own”.

Sounds relatively simple, but is it? What should we remember when dissatisfaction hits?

1 Acknowledge that humans inherently want more than they have. The ‘wanting’ circuit helps us strive and achieve and seek pleasure, but it has the downside of needing an ‘off’ switch. Buddhists have learned to observe their cravings and thoughts without reacting to them. This is increasingly taught in psychological circles as part of mindfulness.

2 Acknowledge that some degree of dissatisfaction, disillusionment and sadness is normal and temporary. In the book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008), Eric Wilson argues being melancholic is a state of active learning – a sense of engaging in the world with openness. Wilson states that through discontent comes the ability to challenge the status quo. De Botton calls this sadness a feature of life – by running away from it too quickly we may not learn its messages.

A key finding about depression in recent years is people with chronic relapsing depression (three or more depressive episodes in their lives) tend to have thoughts that spiral downwards easier than other people’s.

Research has found that becoming aware of the spiral early can prevent relapse, so instead of thinking the worst if we experience a flat mood, we tell ourselves it’s just one day and we might feel better tomorrow. We can then think of how we could make our day easier, to support ourselves during this time. One or two flat days are part of being human; it doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong.

And when you feel dissatisfied, remind yourself to follow de Botton’s advice and create your own version of what success is. Take note of societal messages and surround yourself with people who have similar values. Also, develop gratitude. To read 
more about this, explore the book Thanks! (HMH, 2007) by Robert Emmons.

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