Satisfaction in life: the ultimate algorithm
Is there such a recipe that we can follow to increase the likelihood of being satisfied in life generally?
Also known as happiness or being happy, or state of contentment, satisfaction in life is something we all strive to achieve or experience. These notes will focus on activities as a primary source of containment.
Initially understood as a cumulative sense of pleasure and achievement, satisfaction became the target of the CBT therapy through activity scheduling and behavioural activation. The research and literature refer to satisfaction in life as a combination of pleasurable and meaningful activities. We can therefore define satisfaction as a function of the two experiences, the sense of pleasure and the sense of meaning.
Satisfaction in life = sense of pleasure + sense of meaning
What follows from here is that if we want to increase satisfaction in life we have to work towards increasing both senses of pleasure and meaning.
Unfortunately, there is a trick upon its sleeve in that these two senses work together like 'a fluid in a container'. The more pleasure we experience, the less meaning we have in life. The more meaningful activities we engage with, the more we compromise on our sense of pleasure.
Any over-investment in one or the other will disrupt the satisfaction. Otherwise it would be true that people who pursue drugs will be the most satisfied. Indulging oneself in pleasurable activities and living the life of hedonism does not seem to guarantee satisfaction or happiness.
Although pleasure and meaningfulness go together, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest ways in which they differ:
As pleasure is a short lived feeling, it is no wonder that we need more and more in order to feel contained. Eating cakes, chocolate, having a cup of tea/coffee, being in the sunshine, buying something, drinking - all of these are short lived pleasurable activities. When these are used in moderation, there is no need to change things. The problem arises when they are used as a way of coping with negative feelings. Not rarely we find ourselves comfort eating when under stress. Buying clothes has become more and more an unhealthy style of coping, if its cost outweigh the benefits. When we find ourselves booking a holiday on the immediate return from one, maybe it is time for us to consider and make changes about the way we live our lives.
Engagement with meaningful activities will lead to more prolonged feelings, which are more powerful and intense. They are linked to one's values in life and normally take time, effort and investment: being a good mother to the children, having success in our career, being loyal to family members, being creative, being responsible and so on. However these investments are not guaranteed and are often accompanied by unhappiness and other negative feelings: hurt, anger, disappointment.
As the list of pleasurable and meaningful activities is idiosyncratic, specific to the individual it is impossible to compile a comprehensive list that we could simply tick.
From my experience, people who describe themselves as engaged primarily in meaningful activities do a lot of thinking, think more about their past and future, put pleasurable activities on hold. Similarly people engaged primarily with pleasurable activities tend to procrastinate with important matters in life.
The moral of these notes is that pursuing satisfaction in a short lived way tends to compromise on the general satisfaction in life as an important ingredient is missing. At the same time an over-investment in meaningful activities to the detriment of pleasure evokes in us the same general dissatisfaction. And to conclude this line of argument it seems that we are better off having meaningful activities punctuated by pleasurable ones, which is nothing but an investment with benefits short and long term.
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