Every single person, from the Dali Lama to Dick Cheney (you will probably never again see these two names in the same sentence, so enjoy it), experiences varying degrees of elation and disappointment. For some, life is an easy and content hammock punctuated only by the occasional irritating need to stand up for another beer. To others, life is a seemingly unending struggle to maintain balance. For most of us, life wavers somewhere in the middle—sometimes we’re on the hammock, at other times a teeter-totter. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, a goal common to most is to achieve more time on the hammock and less time tossing on the stormy seas of discontent.
The question is—how does one achieve it?
Dissatisfaction asserts itself in many ways. Some people become depressed, anxious, apathetic, bored, or they experience some other negative sensation. Whatever the manifestation, the root of it is the same—we are dissatisfied with some aspect of ourselves or the world around us. And everyone responds to dissatisfaction in a different way. We get wasted. We have a breakdown. We overeat. We lash out at others. This last effect is perhaps one of the largest causes of inter-personal conflict. Whenever you’re feeling low and you encounter some happy-go-lucky bastard, all you can think about is hitting their foot with a hammer, or some similar infliction. And then of course you wonder to yourself, why would I do even think such a terrible thing? And the self-loathing continues and the bitter wheel keeps on turning.
Anyway, I digress. Dissatisfaction. So what is it, why do we feel this awful sensation, and where can I get the magic pills to make it go away?
A Tool Rather than a Hindrance
The truth is that dissatisfaction is a tool, and a useful one at that. For the same reason we have nerves to alert us that we’re touching a hot stove, we have feelings like dissatisfaction to warn us that something is not quite right on some higher level, in that place where our mind and our spirit intermingle. When the levels are off, we experience dissatisfaction as a way of reminding us to keep up shop. The common reaction to this feeling is to get bummed out and think there must be something wrong with you. But happy people, and I mean those lucky people who are really constant with their level of contentment, they respond to dissatisfaction in an entirely different way—they use it as a prompt to action.
For example, one day you wake up and you look around at your trashed apartment, and you think how in a couple hours you have to go to the job you can’t stand, and how if you’d kept up those courses at community college you could maybe get a better job and would have a chance to learn something new, and, oh yeah, you feel fat. Suddenly the prospect of getting out of bed seems far less appealing than burying yourself in it.
What you’re feeling is dissatisfaction. It might express itself as depression or self-loathing. Maybe you feel vengeful toward the world or like giving up all together, but it’s all the same thing.
So where do you go from there?
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
What your psyche is telling you when you’re feeling dissatisfied is that it’s time to make a change. If you’ve done a good job of maintaining things, you may only feel a twinge of dissatisfaction and it may be that a relatively small change is all that is necessary. Oftentimes, however, we have difficulty recognizing our inner-happiness meter until things have snowballed and we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. In a case like I’ve presented above where there are so many issues to confront, how do we keep from feeling like it’s hopeless and giving up?
The first thing to know is that giving up isn’t an option. If you don’t deal with the source of your dissatisfaction now you’re just going to end up dealing with it later. Avoidance is the main ingredient in a midlife crisis. We keep putting off our happiness until our discontent outweighs it by too much, and then there is some form climactic snap. The human psyche can take incredible amounts of external punishment, whether physical or mental, but it’s not all that good at handling self-inflicted misery.
When the time comes to deal with your situation, the first thing you need to do is step back mentally and take an objective look at the different realms of your overall lifestyle—health, work, relationships, home, finances, and whatever else makes up the basic building blocks of your existence. Then figure out in which areas you are deficient and in which you excel.
Once you’ve recognized the specific places where you need improvement, it is usually only a matter of performing a few simple corrections to make things balance out. It only appears like a hopeless mess at a distance.
Let’s look back at our hypothetical situation from above. Home, work, intellectual stimulation, and health are the main areas in which, upon waking, immediately send out signals of dissatisfaction. Once the deficient areas are isolated, it is simply a matter of addressing them one at a time.
Start with the easiest and most immediate issue. Okay hypothetical person—clean your apartment. Suddenly you’ve gone from having four problems to three, one thing less to worry about.
There are some aspects of life that are difficult to change, especially depending on external circumstances. While a very common contributor to dissatisfaction involves a person’s job—whether they like the job but have problems in the workplace, or hate the job altogether—changing jobs has become a tricky thing to do in the modern marketplace. The key thing to remember is that if you don’t start dealing with it now, you’re just going to have to later.
So Mr. or Ms. Hypothetical should start putting out a few resumes. A job search when you’re unemployed seems like a desperate situation. When you already have a job you can do it at leisure, especially since the hiring process for most companies starts on the internet.
Our hypothetical friend should enroll at school of some sort, whether it is a community college, university, technical school, or online. Even if you only have the schedule flexibility or funds to participate in one or two courses at a time, obtaining a degree and new skill set will not only help with finding better or more satisfying work, it provides a sense of self-fulfillment to be engaged with a new learning experience and to emerge at the other end of your studies with the knowledge that you’ve accomplished something.
Or maybe you’re not looking for a different job, but like our friend described above, you strive for more intellectual stimulus. Log onto Amazon, order a book. Or get a library card, and borrow a book. The bottom line is, read some books, whatever genre you prefer. Haven’t we all heard a friend say, always with a tone of near-surprise but undeniable pleasure, “I’ve been getting a lot of reading done lately.” Yeah, books are good.
Heath is Where it All Starts
The final issue for our hypothetical friend involved improving his or her health. This is one of the most difficult issues that Americans grapple with. Some people think they’re too lazy, other’s that it’s too hard. It’s funny how people will admit it with a strange tone of joviality, “I’d like to get in shape, but it’s too hard.” Generally they make this statement before ever even attempting to improve their diet or try to exercise.
The thing to remember is that maintaining your health is one of the most important factors in maintaining a steady level of life satisfaction. Think of all of the benefits derived from diet and exercise—you feel better and are more capable physically, and you feel better about yourself mentally. You’ll live longer and have a better standard of living as the years pass, and you’ll feel more attractive now, which is always good for self-esteem and a general sense of satisfaction.
I’ll go into the specifics of how to build a healthier lifestyle in a future post. For now, suffice to say that it is possible to take small steps and make gradual improvements to your daily routine that will lead to dramatic improvements in health over time. All it takes is the slightest bit of willpower (the development of which I will also describe in a future post).
I know what some of you are saying: “Will power? What a crock.” Somewhere along the line it because bizarrely cool to lack in willpower, to be unable to resist that box of donuts, to be unable to pull one’s self away from the TV. (A hint: it became cool when we invented mass advertising. You just can’t resist! Ad execs get paid to make you feel that way, to break down your willpower.)
So consider ways of improving your health. You want to be happy don’t you?
Sometimes you’ll find, upon a bit of self analysis, that there are realms of your life in which you are overabundant. Maybe you work too much, or socialize too much. Sometimes improving the areas in which you are lacking takes nothing more than transferring some of your attention. If you’re deficient in family or social relationships, but your life is over-occupied by work, try to balance these aspects of life out.
Generally, improving your level of happiness is easy as long as you can learn to listen when dissatisfaction comes calling, then take the small steps necessary to correct your life balance. Occasionally, however, too much time has passed and an excessive level of dissatisfaction has built up. In these cases, small alterations to day to day life may not be enough, and drastic action may be required.
This may mean moving to a new town, quitting a job, or ending a relationship. Maybe you’re in a bad romance, or you have friends who are a negative influence on your life, or your job is driving you crazy, or you simply need a change.
Usually this happens because you didn’t address your growing level of dissatisfaction early on, and now it’s become a monster. As I’ve said, listening to your dissatisfaction when it first chirps up will save you from being swallowed by it when it decides to bite your head off.
My end point is that sometimes dramatic change is necessary in order to find happiness. For many people, making decision to move or end a relationship can be terrifying, almost paralyzing. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post, but for now let’s just say that the ability to consciously apply huge changes to our existence is part of what makes us human—exercise this ability.
Even people who don’t suffer from chronic levels of dissatisfaction can benefit from making big changes within their lives. Some people have a special word for these big changes—they’re called “adventures”.
From my experience, there is nothing more satisfying than a good adventure.