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The Problem With Being Happy

Achieving life satisfaction requires the willingness to constantly change

Dave Schools
Dec 22, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: fStop Images — Jutta Kuss/Getty Images
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I walk in the door to a party and sit down next to someone I know. It has been a few months since we last saw each other. We catch up.

Abruptly, this person interrupts our casual banter with the following question: “How do you overcome satisfaction?”

The abruptness of the question surprises me, almost as much as its sudden depth. Isn’t satisfaction a good thing? It means fulfillment, contentment, happiness. What’s there to overcome?

I search the person’s face. They were born in the 1930s, the lines on their face are deep with age. They worked their way up at a Fortune 100 company as an engineer and received an irresistibly auspicious severance package, plus a generous pension at the tender age of 50.

They were well-invested in stocks and bonds and reaped the benefits of compound interest for multiple, multiple decades. Not only that, but this person also inherited generational wealth, which also grew in the stock market for more than half a century.

This person hasn’t worked a day since retiring at 50.

This person reads nonfiction history books voraciously. Every day for hours, this person reads book after book about wars, biographies, scientific discoveries, and philosophy. Thick, dense trees of books. It goes without saying, they’re one of the most knowledgeable people I know.

Outside of reading, this person goes for walks, cooks simple fare (never eats out), and cares for others in the household. They create art for amusement and tend to their property, which they’ve owned outright for decades. They go to church, they watch movies and television in the evenings, and they receive family for Sunday lunches. But the majority of their time is spent learning about history in a book.

True, lasting satisfaction, in the absence of change, is a myth, a dangling carrot, a moving target.

So when this person asks the question, “How do you overcome satisfaction?” you can see why it gave me pause. They have enough money and time—two things everybody always wants more of—to do and have all they want and need. What about love, though? Time and money can’t buy love. Maybe that’s what this person’s question is dancing around; maybe they’re missing love?

Not the case. This person has been married to the same person for over 65 years. I’m not privy to the intimate details of their relationship, but I know something has to be going right to be in a committed, faithful relationship, sleeping next to each other every night in the same bed, for that long.

I am still stunned. This perplexing question identifies a problem: If life is great—if you’re happy, satisfied, content, and fulfilled—why would you change anything? If everything is the way you want it to be, why bother asking this question at all?

The Paradox of Satisfaction

According to a 2017 global survey of happiness and life satisfaction, most people, when asked to describe their life satisfaction on a scale from zero to 10, choose five.

Bar graphs of the world’s self-reported levels of satisfaction, by region

According to the data, most people fall in the middle, and few rate themselves as highly unsatisfied or highly satisfied—a colloquial “bell curve.” The data and the millionaire’s question suggest the problem is with satisfaction itself.

Maarten van Doorn wrote an incredibly lucid essay on how German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought about life satisfaction. In the essay, he writes:

The secret ingredient to happiness is to risk losing it.

In the long term, rejecting the possibility of unhappiness guarantees unhappiness.

If we are happy, to stay happy, we need to keep playing, to keep exposing ourselves to the possibility of losing.

And how do we become happy in the first place?

I’m afraid Nietzsche can’t help us here. In his posthumous writings, he confesses:

“What must I do to be happy? That I know not.”

If we substitute satisfaction in place of happiness, we find a similar conclusion: True, lasting satisfaction, in the absence of change, is a myth, a dangling carrot, a moving target. Once it’s achieved, you must move on to something else to maintain satisfaction. To get to something else you have to change. And change is uncomfortable. Thus, the paradox of satisfaction.

Back to the Millionaire’s Question

The millionaire asked, “How do you overcome satisfaction?”

They never said why they asked this question. But it seems that if you have the ability to fully control your environment, as was the ostensible case of the millionaire, meaning you can afford everything—money, time, love, knowledge—there’s no limit to what you wish to pursue. You seemingly have the ability to construct a life as you please, and you run into the reason why satisfaction needs to be overcome.

Many of us crave change because we know that when we’re evolving, at least we’re not plateauing or getting stuck.

Having full control of one’s life, and therefore the illusion of having obtained satisfaction, is like living in a glass castle. As long as nobody attacks it, it works well. Hell, it’s a castle. It’s big, safe, and beautiful. But a glass castle can become fragile, irrelevant, and isolating. Throw a wrench at a “fully controlled environment” and it breaks (i.e., the premise of every dystopian movie ever). True utopia is impossible to achieve, in the same way individual satisfaction through control is impossible to achieve. It leads to stagnation. It’s a platter for loneliness. It reinforces an attitude of defensiveness because it puts limits on a big world so that it feels smaller to oneself—and therefore less scary and more skillfully navigable—yet creates a false reality. Give satisfaction through control enough time and it will eat the keys to the glass castle, trapping the prisoner inside, unable to escape.

This is what causes the need for satisfaction to be overcome.

The end goal is different for everyone. I won’t pretend to know the answer.

However, recently, something resonated with me. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and host of the Masters of Scale podcast, interviewed Brit Morin, the founder and CEO of media company Brit + Co, about what it means to be a millennial. Morin, who worked with Steve Jobs back when he steered the ship at Apple, and Hoffman both defined being “millennial” as having the desire to constantly evolve—to grow, self-improve, learn, and experience new things.

This philosophic definition of “millennialism” explains why many of us crave change. We know that when we’re evolving, at least we’re not staying the same, plateauing, or getting stuck. We may not know where we’re heading, but at least we know we’re not constructing a glass castle and settling for what we’ve already found.

This leaves us with a negative solution—an imperative to not do something, as opposed to taking action toward something. I don’t feel good about that. Millennialism is not the answer, and change for change’s sake is a recipe for aimlessness. There’s something much deeper going on. Which is why I’ll continue to search for the answer to the millionaire’s question.


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Dave Schools

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Startup journalist appearing in Inc., CNBC, Axios, Business Insider. Creator of https://mediumwritingcourse.com. CEO of Party Qs app. dave@businessbrewers.com