“I have now reigned above 50 years … Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.”
This is a quote from the ruler of 10th-century Spain, Abd al-Rahman III. He had everything; every material possession was granted to him if he so desired. He then goes on to say,“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”
I think there are two parts to dissatisfaction: one comes from lack of pleasure after achieving a goal, and the other comes from uneasiness or dislike for the state of one’s own life. And it’s important to understand these two elements, because I will be going over why we feel either one, and their antidotes.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I had several goals. I wanted to get good grades, I wanted to join many clubs, and I wanted to do as many extracurriculars as I could. In essence, I was trying to fill up my schedule with anything that seemed productive or conducive for a student to do.
But I wasn’t feeling satisfied, at least not for long. Seeing A’s on my tests and quizzes stopped pleasing me after a while. Even worse, when I got lower grades, it made me feel much worse than when I used to receive those grades on a regular basis.
At first, I was attending as many club meetings as I could, and I felt a sense of pride in knowing that I had little time to do much but work. But I didn’t get a load of satisfaction from having to spend time during and after school at clubs I didn’t even really want to be in.
The reason behind this comes from the concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Research has shown that if your goals are extrinsically motivated – that is, you’re doing them because of how other people will perceive you or some external factor – your satisfaction won’t last. On the other hand, when goals are intrinsically motivated – when you’re doing something for a sort of inner purpose and your own pleasure – that satisfaction; that pleasure; will stay.
My own motivations were extrinsic. I was doing work for the sake of doing work, not because I really wanted to. Perhaps a more relatable reason behind me trying to do so much was connected, in part, to college admissions as well.
Compare my experience to a runner who has just finished her first marathon. This milestone is often intrinsic; she runs the marathon for her own sense of accomplishment and pleasure. There is nothing extrinsic associated with this, such as money or power (or college applications).
So, think of a goal you recently achieved. It could be anything, something as simple as growing a plant in your garden. And think about, were your motivations extrinsic or intrinsic?
Did you want to accomplish these goals for yourself, or was there some sort of implicit obligation? I believe it is important to identify your motivations for what you accomplish, and think about whether the task really did satisfy you.
The second part to dissatisfaction is a little more broad and, at times, more dangerous. It goes like this: “My _____ isn’t good enough.” Something is lacking in your life, and you think that if you solve that problem, you will be immensely happier.
Many of these situations stem from comparing oneself to others. You might think you’re not as successful as others, or you’re not as strong as others, or that you’re not as attractive as others. Social media adds fuel to this. Feelings of envy and sadness arise, and you begin to feel a general feeling of… dissatisfaction.
Imagine you’re feeling lonely and thinking that you don’t have any friends. This is something most of us have felt at some point, but why is that? Most of us actually do have someone or multiple people who text us or want to hang out, but we feel that it isn’t enough for us.
The problem here is that we allow the people we regularly talk with to become the norm. It becomes nothing special to talk to them.
This is something known as hedonic adaptation. It’s defined as when people acclimate to positive developments in their lives, and therefore enjoy them less. This is extremely common; we let positive events in our life become normal and we begin to care less. The thrill we used to get from talking to our new friends dwindles into a regular daily routine.
So, discouraged, we feel sad and turn down attempts to hang out, which makes us feel even lonelier, and the friends we have will eventually stop reaching out.
Another common example for students could be a bad grade. Instead of going towards the downward spiral of being upset over it, feeling lethargic or slow, studying less for the next test, and getting lower and lower grades, you can think about the classes you’re doing well in, or the good grades you’ve received in that class in the past. Or you can think about how much access to education you have, through the internet and books, or maybe feel grateful for having a good tutor.
One of my favorite ways to overcome a bad grade is to realize that school is meant for learning, and a bad grade simply represents the challenge that learning can be. It is a representation of needing to work harder. Thinking about the positives brings out satisfaction for the next grade, and lowers feelings of dissatisfaction from not being a good enough student.
Getting a bad grade on one test doesn’t mean you’re stupid. And if that’s some vague sentiment you hear a lot but still can’t seem to really internalize, then let me introduce you to negativity bias.
Negativity bias is a common cognitive bias. It’s the tendency to register negative events more readily and dwell on these events over positive events of equal value. It’s the reason we focus on what’s bad and overlook what’s good. It’s the reason someone can underestimate how many friends they have, and it’s the reason we feel stupid after a bad grade.
Negativity bias is the centerpiece of dissatisfaction. Focusing on the bad in our life makes us inexplicably feel as if we’re not good enough, when in reality, we’re on the right track. I highly encourage you to be aware of this bias.
I promise you that your feelings of low self-esteem either in a certain topic or in general are the result of small imperfections which your brain identifies as large issues. And to get rid of these feelings, you have to feel grateful.
Gratitude is the solution to this type of dissatisfaction. It’s pretty much magic.
When we’re feeling lonely, if we feel grateful for the friends we have, we’ll continue socializing with the friends we do know, and from there we can meet new people and expand our social circle. This creates a positive feedback loop, where we keep on appreciating the friends we have and creating new ones.
Gratitude forces you to directly focus on what is good in your life instead of taking it for granted.
An abundance of research studies show the positive effects of gratitude on one’s well-being. Gratitude strengthens neural pathways that are related to feelings of reward, forming social bonds, and interpreting other’s intentions.
It is linked to a number of physical benefits, such as an increased likelihood of engaging in healthy activities and better quality of sleep.
In terms of mental health, a set of eight studies found evidence that gratitude is negatively correlated with symptoms of depression. It is essentially because gratitude makes people more optimistic.
And as for satisfaction, gratitude is strongly linked to job satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, satisfaction with school, and overall life satisfaction.
Gratitude makes you feel better.
Okay, so feeling grateful is a relatively fluffy topic. What are some objective ways to tackle dissatisfaction using gratitude?
Physically, you can smile more, say thank you more, and write messages and letters to people you feel grateful for. You can try to remember bad things in the past. The idea is to remember how far you’ve come to pass through hard times.
Volunteering is another way to produce gratitude. Not only will it make you more grateful for the things that you may take for granted, but studies have shown that volunteering for the purpose of helping others will increase our ability to have more gratitude. Mental subtraction involves imagining what life would be like if a positive event had not occurred. Think about things you may be uncomfortable without, and recent successes in your life.
One of the most effective ways to develop gratitude is a gratitude journal. This can differ in exactly what you do, but the premise is to write three things each day about something you’re grateful for. It can be anything from something someone did for you to how much you like soft pretzels. Gratitude journals are strongly backed by science, and they show measurable improvements in well-being in just a few weeks.
Yet, despite this solution of gratitude, this whole concept of dissatisfaction may feel bleak. After all, according to the cycle of hedonic adaptation, every success will only be viewed as a failure in the near future because our expectations cannot keep up with our accomplishments. It all seems unreasonable to try to escape this cycle – but that is exactly what this cycle of dissatisfaction is: unreasonable.
It is in the nature of us as humans to be irrational, and if there is but one takeaway from this, it is that our irrationality often comes in the form of selling ourselves short. Hedonic adaptation exists primarily for those who are unaware of it, and as does negativity bias. To solely be aware of these concepts is a simple antidote to dissatisfaction and imposter syndrome; to be aware that dissatisfaction is just us, fooling ourselves.