If someone asks you how your day has been, it is likely that you will think of all the things that went wrong, even if a few things did go well. If you get a 10 per cent increment, you might be happy for a while, but then you will go on to think about your next promotion or appraisal.
While we all have seen T-shirts and posters beseeching us to be happy, the reality is that humans appear to be hardwired and predisposed to be dissatisfied. A study conducted in July 2022 published in the journal 'Science' states that feeling contented isn't good for a species from an evolutionary point of view since it keeps us from seeking further benefits or improvements.
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Essentially, the four components of dissatisfaction are
Boredom: People dislike being alone with their thoughts so much that they’ll prefer to do anything else, even if that activity is negative.
Negativity bias: Negative events tend to demand our attention more powerfully than neutral or positive events
Rumination: A tendency to keep thinking about and relive bad experiences.
Hedonic adaptation: The tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction no matter what happens to us
Kankam Khosla, a counselling psychologist at Karma Centre for Counselling and Well-being in New Delhi, says that the human brains are wired to ruminate over situations, which can lead to distress, frustration and dissatisfaction. On the flip side, being perpetually satisfied is likely to lead to boredom. “We, as an evolved species, seek happiness with newer goals, challenges and rewards without realising that these are transitory. Soon enough, we feel discontented,” she adds.
Dissatisfaction, in many ways, aids self-preservation. Ritika Agarwal, a consultant psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai, explains that having people focus on danger was nature’s way of keeping one safe. “This tendency to caution has survived. The world around us has evolved, and we no longer need to keep an eye out for wild animals, but we still focus on other things that could go wrong and affect our lives,” she says.
Negative experiences are often learning ones. As Agarwal points out, any innovation or adaptation results from human beings being dissatisfied with what is available.
Khosla gives an example of the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, where a team of social workers and medicos worked together to devise a plan to stop the spread. “It was dissatisfaction and frustration which led to the development of an emergency plan for risk mitigation.”
And yes, dissatisfaction doesn’t just stem from our internal instincts; society and culture also have a huge role to play. Khosla says that the way cultural values and societal perceptions also drive success. “We can see that competition is a pervasive aspect of life,” she says, adding that though it comes with the risk of eroding social ties, competition has been intrinsic to evolution.
Having said that, Agarwal believes most cultures push people a bit too far into dissatisfaction. Advertisements, for instance, target consumers by saying that you need to acquire a certain thing to be successful, she points out, adding that social media deepens this feeling of inadequacy.
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“In other words, we are being told we are still not successful because we have something left to strive for,” she says. As any sensible person knows, much on social media is fake and performative, but that does not stop it from reinforcing the dissatisfaction experienced, especially by youngsters,” she says.
So, how does one strike a balance between happiness and ambition? In Khosla’s opinion, the key to this is to align our goals with our purpose to make them meaningful as well as fulfilling.
“Leveraging our skills with the component of passion can boost our performance and also keep us positive even in the middle of the grind. We all can change negative to positive by doing something about it rather than nothing. One thing that is common in all of us is that we all possess the ability to make a shift in our perspectives by taking action,” she says.
3 things to remember for a better life
Courtesy Ritika Agarwal, counselling psychologist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre
Identify what motivates you
Why are you pushing yourself? What gives you true happiness? Once you find the answers to these questions, try and find a balance between these two.
Be aware of what you're dissatisfied with and start working towards changing it for a better future, BUT also try and work on your satisfaction levels in the present while you work towards that better future.
Set up your goal list
Create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals so that you know what you need to do to achieve your goals while keeping them achievable, thus reducing frustration and other extraneous factors that can add to your dissatisfaction
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist