Thriving in the Face of Happiness and Dissatisfaction

My son is in the Physics program at Auburn and he just went through a series of tests that were pretty intense.  There’s a lot riding on the outcome.  He didn’t do as well as he wanted, but it was good enough.  The months leading up to these tests weren’t easy; lots of stress and very long hours. 

We talked after he got his results and I congratulated him on what he accomplished.  And he said this, “Thanks.  Yeah, I’m happy, but not satisfied.”

That stuck in my head.  Can we be happy and not satisfied?

It reminded me of an article I wrote a while back about Einstein’s formula for success and his note on happiness.  He was a Physics guy too. 

In a 1929 interview with the New York Times, Einstein said, the formula for success is A = X + Y + Z

He said, “A is Success, while X is Work, Y is Play, and Z is Keeping Your Mouth Shut.”

Keep your mouth shut really provides some insight.  Maybe he regrets saying “yes” to projects he really didn’t want to say “yes” to.  But he was the guy, so who else? 

Seven years before that in 1922, Einstein was in a hotel room in Tokyo, when a messenger knocked on his door with a package.  Instead of giving the messenger a monetary tip, which he didn’t have, he gave him a handwritten note on hotel stationary and it reads, “A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

When he wrote the note, he had just won the Nobel Prize in Physics.  In that note, we get a pretty clear idea of where his head’s at.  Was the arduous pursuit worth the result?  We can feel his doubts.

In Einstein’s case, he was satisfied, but didn’t seem to be happy.  The reverse of what my son described.

Apparently, satisfaction and happiness are not necessarily related. 

Satisfaction is a pleasure that is felt from a fulfilled achievement.  It’s an effect, not an emotion.  Happiness is an emotional state and more broadly, a way of being. 

It’s not about the pursuit of happiness, but being happy within the pursuit.  It didn’t seem like Einstein really enjoyed his pursuit, whereas my son loves it.  My guess is that Einstein would have loved it too, if it weren’t for the political pressures he was under. 

In a 2019 article in “The Conversation”, it stated that ‘humans are not designed to be happy, or even satisfied, arguing that contentment is discouraged by nature, because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.

But, in the past 150 years, we’ve exponentially outpaced the nature of our species with technology and innovation.  “Survival” has become more about achievement and “leveling up”, which we have to do to “survive” better or … thrive.

According to a 2021 Forbes article, thriving is a combination of happiness, accomplishment, and prosperous growth.  They mention resilience, perspective, approach, passion, learning, relationships and belonging, but nothing about being “satisfied”. 

Instead, they cover challenge and the journey.  Satisfaction through the endeavor, not the result.  The article says, “Humans have a need to reach, grow, and stretch; embracing trials and tribulations.  It’s about a constant state of development.”  Arriving at a destination of “satisfaction” is counterproductive to thriving.

So, can we be happy and not satisfied?  Well … it seems that not being ultimately satisfied is an important component of happiness.  We need to keep going.  If not further into this thing, then the next thing, or something else altogether. 

Einstein was a happy person and enjoyed life, according to everything I’ve read, but I think in some of his endeavors, the unnecessary outside burdens and rigmarole took their toll at times.

It’s not the struggle, it’s the social politics, red tape, worrying about the perception of others, outside opinions, snarky advice, and backhanded “compliments”.  If we can stay away from those people and negative influences, happiness would reign. 

Be happy and maybe not so satisfied.


Photo by D Jonez on Unsplash

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