Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 11, 2022
How wanting less can result in greater satisfaction
NEIL SENTURIA I’m There for You, Baby
When this column appears, I will be fishing on the Missouri River in Montana. I am working virtually; my office is a drift boat.
There is a high likelihood that I will be happy, irrespective of fish count. If I have hooked a few fish, I might also be satisfied. Those two emotions are different and for a more nuanced exploration of that puzzle, let’s play an old song from the Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
To parse that puzzle further, let’s turn to Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, who teaches a course on “Leadership and Happiness.” He contends no matter what we achieve, it is never enough, and so satisfaction slips through our fingers.
We all desperately try to hold onto it for a moment longer. I did not value it highly enough, I did not cherish it adequately, I did not treasure the moment, and when it is thoughtlessly discarded or left behind at the restaurant, I am in pain and want desperately to run back and retrieve it. Of course, I can’t, and neither can you. Deep regret. Give me one more chance, please.
In addition, there is the distinction between external event satisfaction (a raise, I’m happy) and self-satisfaction (I will never be good enough). I often feel that I come up short, that I missed the mark, and that is not unique. In studies of great athletes, we can often see the immediate pain of a loss, but the lack of that momentary satisfaction does not diminish their happiness at a more macro level. They will go home to loving wives and children and will live to play another day.
For me, that view is powerful. I am a student in the school of gratitude. I have climbed up some of the rungs on the success ladder, but I have also come to terms that I can never climb them all — and that is just fine. Happiness is acceptance of limitations and benevolent appreciation for the journey to date.
Mick Jagger says, “I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.” Well, what about trying a little less? Brooks is a neuroscientist; he makes the observation that the song should be retitled, “I Can’t Keep No Satisfaction.” He says that our brains are wired to want and holding on to moments is hard to do.
For our entrepreneurs-in-waiting, this behavior can be deadly. I had lunch with a friend, and he tells a story that has been told several million times. He was in a company, it was doing well, they got an offer to buy it, the board thought the offer was too low, they told the buyer to pound sand, and 12 months later, there was no company, no sand, and they were broke.
Chasing money as a source of satisfaction. It will always outrun you.
Brooks quotes psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell: “Our human nature condemns men to live on a hedonic treadmill, to seek new levels of stimulation merely to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure, to never achieve any kind of permanent happiness or satisfaction.”
That is no way to live. If that is true and immutable, then I am good with just ending it all now. The reason for the great resignation is that “more” is no longer enough to keep me in your office. I will embrace less in exchange for a reasonable shot at happiness — and maybe along the way, satisfaction, as well.
Nothing said above is new or revolutionary. It is stuff we have been told our whole lives. Why is it so hard then for us to internalize it and modify our behavior?
It is Mother Nature’s fault, says Brooks. She demands that we strive. More mates, better mates, better survival, better children. “Fear of neurobiological extinction — which we experience as dissatisfaction — is what drives us forward.”
Brooks might be correct, and he might not be. I am not accepting the inevitable misery of constant want. My caution to the entrepreneurial set is to be careful what you wish for, because even if you get it, you may not be able to hold onto it for very long.
Rule No. 720:
I want a relationship, not a job.