Why Your Perpetual Dissatisfaction Can Actually Be A Good Thing

Photography By Fernanda Liberti
The pursuit of happiness is a pillar of modern life, particularly as the pandemic pushed many of us to reevaluate what’s important to us. Where we’ve grown up being sold on a linear road to a happy life — get a dream job, get married, have kids, etc — we’re now aware of the endless routes we can take instead. And with all that agency, the pressure to create a life we’re satisfied with has never been more stressful. 
But on a baser, psychological and evolutionary level, what if we’re never really supposed to stay satisfied? As author and lecturer, Nir Eyal writes in Psychology Today, dissatisfaction is not only normal but its presence is unavoidable and even necessary for our overall wellbeing. So when looking at happiness, it’s less of a question of what makes us dissatisfied and more about what makes satisfaction so short-lived?
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As Eyal notes, sustained satisfaction isn’t very good for us as a species since it inhibits us from improving ourselves or keeping our edge, hence why we’re naturally wired to seek out problems. And according to Eyal’s research, there are four key ways we contribute to the temporary nature of our own satisfaction.

Boredom

In a 2014 study published in Science, participants were asked to sit in a room and think for fifteen straight minutes. Inside the otherwise empty room was a device that allowed participants to electrocute themselves mildly. When asked beforehand, every participant in the study said they would pay money to avoid being shocked. And yet, when left alone in the room with the machine and nothing else to do, 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women shocked themselves — multiple times. As Eyal notes, what the study demonstrates is that people don’t love being alone with their thoughts, and will go to lengths to avoid them, even if that activity causes them literal harm.
And the kicker of contentment is that it can actually be pretty boring. After all, would you prefer to watch a reality show about polite people all getting along with no complications? Or would you rather tune in to Love Island during Casa Amor?
As sentient beings, improving our situations is a natural instinct. So when we’re feeling stagnant, restlessness can take over and convince us that we’re actually in need of something more stimulating, the proverbial electric shocks that will make us feel more alive.
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But striving for constant stimulation isn’t always healthy, so perhaps a takeaway is to not look at boredom through a negative lens since it can sometimes just mean we’re pretty satisfied.

Negative Bias

Where optimistic bias is the belief that the future is guaranteed to be better, negative bias is the phenomenon in which negative events are more salient in our minds and command our attention more than neutral or even positive events.
“Researchers also believe that we tend to have an easier time recalling bad memories than good ones,” writes Eyal. “Studies have found people are more likely to recall unhappy moments in their childhood, even if they would describe their upbringing as generally happy.”
Of course, it’s natural to be more influenced by adversities than positive ones. As inhabitants of a precarious world, it’s a way of staying vigilant for threats. “Good things are nice, but bad things can kill you,” write Eyal. It’s why you probably remember things like rejection and conflict more prominently than good experiences.
While we can’t tell you that it’ll make the hurt sting less, understanding this as a natural response can help take some of the pressure off.

Rumination

If negative thoughts about ancient events or stuff that hasn’t even happened yet keep you up at night, you’re not alone. Rumination is the process of overthinking and though it can take on unhealthy levels of obsession, most of us experience it to some degree — and that’s totally normal! 
Where it holds us back is when we’re channelling all of our energy into self-criticising, comparing ourselves to others or measuring our lives by what we lack. And when we’re spending our time thinking this way, 
You may not be able to stop yourself from thinking about what you should’ve done; try to look at these unfavourable experiences as a learning curb, something to grow from and do better at instead of a personal failure.
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And if you’re prone to overthinking, another way to channel those negative thoughts a little more productively is by adopting an ‘anti-goals’ approach to life where you work out what you want by looking at what you don’t want as opposed to what you don’t have.

Hedonic Adaptation

Coined in the ‘70s by Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell, hedonic adaptation is the tendency of humans to return to a relatively stable baseline of satisfaction despite major — positive or negative — events. Typically outlined in the form of the ‘hedonic treadmill’ wherein desires follow the same cycle of striving, attainment and then more desire, it basically comes from our own projections that certain goals or milestones will make us happy, when, really, once we reach them, the ceiling only expands. And thus, we move on to the next thing. 
While it sounds fairly dire to think that none of our goals will make us happy, it’s not actually the point here. Goals aren’t a bad thing, they can give us purpose and drive us. Relying on a single achievement for life-long happiness, though? That’s not so useful. It’s also worth noting that there will always be something new to aspire to. We just have to keep perspective, Bueller-style, that life is also happening while we’re trying to get somewhere we think we need to be.
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As Eyal hearteningly reassures, dissatisfaction is not defeat. Life doesn't need to be an endless stream of achievements to be enjoyed, and should be measured by how much you enjoy your day-to-day and how much you live your values over how far away your goals may be.
Adversities are all part of the human experience, and if anything, the value of satisfaction really sits with its ephemeral nature.
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