I think the story of how we can live a satisfying life is a little complicated. Our behaviour isn’t always guided by what is most immediately pleasurable, and where and how we gain satisfaction is a bit complicated too.
I think a common assumption is that we prefer pleasure to pain. This is probably even our rough and ready definition of sanity: You want more pain in your life? Are you crazy?
I think there is much truth in this. I can’t bring myself to see pain and suffering as good things.
I do think the story is a little more complicated. If we simply prefer pleasure, why we do remember unpleasant things? How come we remember the mistakes we made on that maths test we did in class and not the ones we got right? (We may have achieved 90% and still done dwell on the 1/10th we didn’t get right).
We also delay pleasure. We put off that cup of coffee until we have done the washing up and such things. We can also forgo one pleasure expecting that greater will result. We may decide not to nibble all day because eating a full meal will be more satisfying.
I think all this means that pleasure is not as simple and straightforward as it may seem. There seem to be different kinds of pleasure, we sometimes trade one pleasure off against another, and we sometimes delay one pleasure for a future pleasure.
I think a common way we see the world is that we have desires and needs that are met by ‘stuff’ out there ‘in the world’.
There is much truth to this I think. We are hungry and so start making a meal, and then eat it with enjoyment.
Once again I think the story is a little more complicated. Firstly there is the matter of internal satisfaction — we get the ‘stuff’ that satisfies us from inside rather than outside. For me ordering my thoughts and making sense of them can be delightful. When we reminisce, there is the pleasure of remembering. Our needs and desires are not met only by what is ‘out there’ but sometimes by what is ‘in here’.
With this simple model of ‘desire and needs in here’ satisfied by ‘the world out there’ we can have frustration. Sometimes the world doesn’t co-operate with our wishes: what we want isn’t obtainable by us. This can lead to the particular desire being seen as unrealistic or, more radically, seeing desire itself as a problem. It can also lead to a search for ever more powerful ways to modify my situation to my satisfaction (the pursuit of ever more powerful technologies of one kind or another).
However, we and our situation are not easily separated. We make the meal we want — and in so doing shape the ‘world out there’ to our satisfaction (if we can). Most of us also accommodate the world: we usually find a way to live with what cannot be altered. (Sometimes a situation is too awful to be endured and so people do choose to end their lives more or less actively.) We both shape our situation and shape ourselves to fit in as well.
Usually we can shape our situation to some extent. It is rarely that our only option is how to respond to the inevitable.
The world ‘out there’ is not entirely fixed; it is usually modifiable by us to some extent.
So I think the story of how we can live a satisfying life is a little complicated.
Our behaviour isn’t always guided by what is most immediately pleasurable, and where and how we gain satisfaction is a bit complicated too. While the idea of my wanting something and getting it from my situation is a good enough description of much of our lives, it also leaves out important parts of our experience.
This I think leads us to the need for awareness. What would bring us satisfaction (or the most satisfaction) isn’t always immediately obvious. Neither are the limitations and potentials of our situation â€“ and how we can respond to it.
There are some simple things that I think we can do to help us develop awareness of our selves and our situation and how they commingle.
Going deeper… It may be that our desire is a symbol — we may want that new bicycle to show that we have a commitment to sustainability. We may want that new romantic partner to show that we are desirable. It may be that there is more to the situation than we see at first look — there may be possibilities we hadn’t thought of, a need to think outside the box.
The simplest way I know to get started thinking outside the box is suggested by Edward de Bono. Open a dictionary at random, put your finger on a word and then try to find a relationship between this word and the subject you are considering. It is simple and in my experience remarkably effective.
The simplest way I know to find out if something is a symbol is to imagine ourselves receiving it. If we imagine our life being changed by receiving the thing (other than satisfaction) then it is probably a symbol.
Going wider… There are often many more options available to us than we realise. Tunnel vision is all too common (for me anyway).
I have found it worthwhile to imagine all the possible ways there are for one of my desires to be satisfied. (They don’t have to be likely. It may be that even some impossible ones are useful in freeing our thinking: little green men from Mars giving it to you is probably useful as one option, but coming up with too many impossible options would probably be just a waste of time).
I have also found it useful to write a description or draw a diagram of my situation, to have a different way of representing the situation so that I can take a fresh look at it. In some ways what I think of as bizarre can be very helpful (what would the dance of choosing a kind of bicycle look like?) but only if the bizarreness doesn’t stop me from using it. (Sitting down and thinking about the bizarreness or the bike dance isn’t the point at this stage).
At those times when satisfaction seems elusive, then going deeper and wider can offer us possibilities for ways to move forwards.
I’d like to hear from you about how satisfying you find your life, and what strategies you use to gain satisfaction in your life. Let me know in the comments.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by