Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Perpetual Dissatisfaction: A Failed Model

If you listen, you hear it everyday . . .

“I’ll be happy when . . . [fill in the blank]

I have more money.”

I live in a bigger house.”

I get a promotion.”

I have a new boss.”

I get that new job.”

The voice you hear may be your own.

That satisfaction is a state in the future to be attained is so common a belief that its premise is not even questioned. Nowhere is this better seen than in societies where money and power are the yardsticks of success.

This equation of happiness goes something like this -- > = > ☺, and if we have more of it – whether it is money, fame, power, or good looks, more will eventually become enough. And so most of us struggle to make one more dollar, get one more promotion, or buy the next new toy -- the one that will make all the difference.

This perpetual struggle has created a society filled with stress, depression, and anxiety. Everyone can see it, and most feel it. Yet, ironically, most are not looking to escape it, but to pull out a victory in the final seconds.

Rejected is another possibility: the problem is not the present; the present is fine just as it is; no change in our lives is necessary to be happy, satisfied, and content. Perhaps satisfaction is a decision, not a set of circumstances.

Such possibilities are not even discussed. Since each of us was old enough to be propped up in front of a television set, we have learned that happiness is never now, but always tomorrow when we get/attain/achieve/have what we “really want.”

In one sense the perpetual dissatisfaction model has been successful. The largest economy in history has been built on the single premise that more is better, and the more subtle implication that one day more will become enough, even though it doesn’t, it can’t, and it won't. Indeed, if we as consumers ever decide that more has become enough, game over.

If perpetual dissatisfaction as a life model was limited to our economic life, we might be able to survive happily if only because other dynamics in our lives, not mediated by future-think, would balance our unhealthy relationships with all the other “stuff.”

Unfortunately, perpetual dissatisfaction has permeated all of life – “if only my child made better grades,” “if only my husband was more attentive,” “if only I was prettier, thinner, younger.” Perpetual dissatisfaction as a way of living tells us, “You are not enough and something different must happen to make you enough – to bring you lasting satisfaction. So, go get it.”

And, we try. We continue to chase the mechanical rabbit around the track, even though we can see it is has failed others and is failing us. Whether we dream of a future with more money, better relationships, fame, power, or knowledge, we look for something outside ourselves to make it right inside ourselves, and most of us die looking.

Even when we do catch the rabbit, it is only for a moment and our satisfaction is short-lived. Whether more money, a promotion, falling in love, or getting our name in the newspaper, the present is soon in the past, and we are often disappointed when the new toy, the new thing, the new person didn’t make us more worthy, valuable, enlightened, or satisfied, leaving us again looking to the future for salvation.

We should have seen our error long ago. If money, fame, or power could make us happy then the wealthy, the famous, and the powerful would be happier than those who simply accept what is. Social scientists have spent lifetimes studying human satisfaction and they have observed that the most satisfied among us are not those who get what they want but those who want what they have. Unfortunately, we haven’t been looking or listening. We have pulling the harness in blinders hoping against hope it will turn out different for us.

We keep playing, striving, and stressing, euphemistically justifying our own dissatisfaction as “hope” or “aspiration” or “drive.” We paint a happy face on this dysfunction and leave it to semantics to justify it. In doing so we ignore what we each know, see, and intuit -- the game is not made to be won but simply to be continued. No amount of money, no title, not even another person is going to make any of our stories work out. We age, we get sick, and we perish. That is how it works out.

To pretend that if we play the game better, and faster, and harder than all who have come before us will cause the game to end differently is folly – a mind projection that has no basis in fact or in history. Running and playing at any pace is fine if it brings satisfaction now, today, in the present, but if we are running to the promise of the future, we are placing burdens on our present that our futures can never satisfy.