Getting around a bit in Europe, you easily get to know how people’s life is not a box of chocolates. That guy who destroys his body and his really intelligent mind by too much weed and psychedelics, seeing no other way to get over a broken relationship. The young woman who suddenly expresses a desire to die, like by jumping from the mountain we sat on talking (but thankfully, she’s alive and well). All the nice-looking houses I walked by in Málaga, noticing people’s shattered dreams from their “For Sale” signs. It saddens me how we, the humans, search satisfaction in vain.
But aren’t we already very creative in our search? We try everything, from yoga to hashish, from power to strong opinions. Not to forget the favorite of Westerners: stuff for consumption, security and independence. Our effort to search and maintain satisfaction is so encompassing that it summarizes what we as humans do. Our whole culture (“non-survival activity”) is just about that. Still, we mostly don’t find it.
What are we doing wrong?
What is it that we search?
The first reason for not finding might be this: because we don’t know what we search. We may feel a diffuse inner emptyness and try something to fix it, but don’t know that it is satisfaction we search. Which is “living in accordance with your ideas and wishes”, also called happiness. Without using the proper concept, we have difficulty choosing the right actions, and also cannot communicate properly to get help from our fellow humans, who also search the same thing but in something else.
The second reason is best explained along illustrations. Of my friends, only two I consider “satisfied”:
The first one “just” wants to have economic power, a family, and lots of interesting and expensive stuff to deal with. That’s still limited, because it is just about private life. It even worked out, as he met with a lot of luck: inherited wealth, “good genes” for motivation and bite, an economically valuable hobby. He has a high self-esteem, which allows his success in a challenging economic environment, but also hides his own failures and deficiencies from himself (so that they don’t affect his happiness). In case of failure, he uses his innate motivation and tries something new quickly, forgetting about the bad success. This way, in time, he arrives at a satisfying outcome. And for really bad personal calamity, he has a strong trust in God, protected from doubt by a strong self-confident opinion about his beliefs. And so it works.
Another friend is also satisfied, and it works completely different: he’s very relaxed and humble, not caring for his many bad successes and failures. He developed a sophisticated mental way, including both self-irony and deep philosophy, to admit his failures but keep them from affecting his emotions (they would rather infuriate others’). But he’s also very sociable and so, together with some luck, has found both a superb relationship to a woman and an interesting, well-paid, permanent job even before finishing his studies (in twice the normal time). Interestingly, he seemed just as satisfied when he had neither job nor girl, by means of his failure-ignoring capabilities. (Note: To illustrate, I remembered the pic below. We kinda shared a flat for two years. Once he completely forgot my birthday, but would show up at midnight with that improvised “cake” and a present he found in his room 😀 That was the kind of humble self-irony he was capable of, feeling not awkward, but happy in a hard to understand way when pulling something like this.)
What these both have in common is that their satisfaction is provided not by one thing but by a system, “a set of interacting, interdependent components forming an integrated whole”. That may be the second reason why satisfaction does not work for most of us: we try one thing, tinker a bit, throw it away and try the next, unaware that we’re working on a system which needs several components and an informed design to work. Searching satisfaction in one component is as hopeless as driving around in a wheel.
Systems engineering for satisfaction
Of course, “system” is just a model. It helps discuss and understand satisfaction, but necessarily simplifies and distorts its reality. Other models can be just as valid. But because the “system” model proved useful above, let’s explore what systems engineering can teach us about building our own satisfaction system. (And yes, everyone has to build their own unique one, because some parts are unique: character, memories, body, personal situation.)
- It’s cross-discipline! In addition to needing several components, you need to integrate several types of them: genetic, mental, material, social and (I think) transcendent ones. To a limited degree, you can supplement one for another, like more meditation to cope with material scarcity. But what you can’t do is getting satisfaction from accumulating just one thing. But Westerners often try just that with materiel stuff, and advertising wants to keep us as unsatisfied consumers …
- Start with the parts you can’t change. Which is, your genetic disposition. Also, your character is super hard to change. The same for the general level of wealth. This is the stuff that has to be in the system because you have no alternatives.
- If you forget one part, it won’t work. That’s special about systems: they depend 100% on each and every component. You can’t drive a car without its steering wheel, accelerator pedal, petrol hose, … .
My own story of forgetting a part is this: I had always focused very much to have “meaning” in what I do, and wondered why I lack motivation to live and to work, even to work for my meaningful tasks. Until I found recently: Everything loses its meaning when life is not enjoyable. Because what’s the meaning even of fixing the world and helping others, when after that, they would experience their life to be as joyless as your own? So now I added “beauty” to my life: just enjoying life, and it also motivates me meaningful work that provides a good life to others. At least that’s the idea now – it’s kinda hard to change own habits. But the insight is that, on their own, neither meaning nor beauty provide any satisfaction to me, yet together it can work.
- Design, try and error. When designing your own satisfaction system, you can’t really know if it works until you start living it. But you can let other designs inform yours, and profit from the experiences of others. But still, because everybody is unique, there is a place for try and error. And for the “try often, fail fast” approach of rapid prototyping, like in software development …
- Use compatible parts. If you want satisfaction, want it first. You have to throw out or modify other things you want or values you have, if it’s impossible to fit them into the “system”.
- Use a doable design. Some ideas how to achieve satisfaction are just too complex or too much work for one gal or guy. For example, some philosopher and activist folks can be constantly unhappy about “the state of the world”. I know it too well. But the world won’t become Utopia in our lifetime, so we can keep that as a grand goal but should tie our satisfaction to more modest successes. In my case, I want to be happy about every step towards a free-to-copy, small, local Utopia. Or, as it can happen to me, being happy during that work itself because I think it’s meaningful.
- Use a socially responsible design. This means simply: don’t derive satisfaction at the cost of others. For example: a person who constantly refuses to understand and discuss the problems of others, while constantly discussing their own with them, would rob the satisfaction of socializing from others. And if everybody employs an approach at the net cost of others’ satisfaction, it simply would not work out on society level. It works out only if “you do to others as you want them to do to you”. That simple Golden Rule 🙂
- Make it agile. As a person one always changes, and so do our surroundings and situations. So better don’t design a static satisfaction system, but make it easily adaptable and reconfigurable. (I admit this is a completely theoretic idea so far, but it “sounds good”. Maybe somebody can map this to the practical search for satisfaction. I recommend “Design Principles for Highly Adaptable Business Systems” for inspirations, esp. p. 13.)
- Make it redundant. A redundant system includes backups and provides n × 100% satisfaction in total. A scaled system provides 100% satisfaction in total, but in parts. So in case of a failure, all but one part still provide you satisfaction. That’s worse than redundancy, but better than zero. Both designs require that one has more than one way for satisfaction. That is also, more than one set of ideas and wishes in life.
- Make it sustainable. It is possible to derive some satisfaction from eating, recreational shopping, drugs, smoking and so on. But when overdoing these, using them as the basis of all satisfaction, in the long run it can ruin a person instead of providing satisfaction. Used carefully however, in the right amount, pretty much everything that humans can do and enjoy has its place. (Two female friends of mine enjoy special moments of the year by smoking a cigarillo together … so harmless!)
- And make it resilient. People care to go off-grid with their house, to make it resilient against failure of the central electricity and water infrastructure. In the same way, we should make our approach to satisfaction resilient against being crushed by external events. From this perspective, it’s for example not a good idea to make satisfaction revolve around a day job. When losing my job, I want still feel meaningful, valuable, and also my lifestyle or anything else relevant for my satisfaction should not collapse.
I will create a follow-up post to analyze my own (so far, largely failing) approach to satisfaction and ways to fix it. I also want to look into explaining a person’s satisfaction system as a diagram. And finally to develop best practices, patterns and instructions how to design and implement an own satisfaction system. This will also include ways to measure and track satisfaction, maybe a smartphone application that asks me about my satisfaction at random times. Ideas welcome!
(A ton of thanks to my friend María for the discussion that inspired everything above!)
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