Happiness vs Satisfaction, or Why Happy is Unrealistic


When I read a quote about happiness, I like to replace the word “happy”, or any derivative thereof, with “satisfied”.

Por ejemplo, a quote from my Uncle Scotty:

“The world is a magical place. The sooner you begin to operate with that as the basis of your daily experience of life, the happier you’ll be.”

Reads instead,

“The world is a magical place. The sooner you begin to operate with that as the basis of your daily experience of life, the more satisfied you’ll be.”

Another, longer example, from a favorite book of mine Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), with the “happys” replaced with “satisfieds”:

“People tend to think that satisfaction is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how satisfaction works. Satisfaction is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of satisfaction, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that satisfaction forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment. “

Satisfaction is an achievable state of consistent contentment; happiness is not.

I think it’s both an impossible and boring goal to strive for happiness all the time. No one who ever existed walked all the way through life happy, or achieved a constant happiness after some miraculous personal revelation. In fact, I haven’t heard a story of enlightenment or godliness without an overwhelming amount of pain. I find it hard to believe Jesus drew every breath staked on the cross in a state of happiness, but it does seem reasonable he felt satisfied in fulfilling his journey.

Let’s break this down with antonyms.

The opposite of happy is sad.

Sad is a totally normal, totally reasonable, totally healthy state of being. Whatever is causing the feeling, it is generally a good thing to experience it. Let the sadness in, feel through it, work to understand the basis of what is causing it, and at the very end, get over it.  Repeat as necessary.

Too few people allow themselves to experience the full range of their emotion. There are very healthy ways to do this and I would argue that not taking the time to emote is quite detrimental to personal growth and to whoever your loved ones (or strangers) are that take the brunt of the bottled up emotion. It comes out somewhere, admit it.

Another set of opposites.

The opposite of satisfied is dissatisfied.

Life is a cycle of discomfort and action, discomfort and action. In adult life, outside of a set of four years packaged with a diploma, I’ve noticed that a haunting, growing feeling of dissatisfaction comes before I make a change. This feeling of discomfort in whatever my status quo happens to be at the time eventually hits a threshold where I realize that I am insane to expect to feel different without doing different. “Keep on keepin’ on” has an expiration date that, when passed, means we need to switch the adage to “stop throwing good money after bad” and cut our losses and our anchors to move forward.

What I am trying to say is that eliminating sadness in your life is like telling yourself you’re not angry when you know good and well you are. It doesn’t work. You can’t talk yourself out of a feeling. You can feel yourself out of a feeling, but you can’t get out of feeling it in the first place (unless you are in a state of denial, which will haunt you until you let in the truth).

On the other hand, and arriving at my point, eliminating dissatisfaction in your life is forward progress. Upward and onward. Eliminating dissatisfaction can be both felt and thought through. The more dissatisfaction you eliminate the more satisfying your life is.

Eliminating dissatisfaction is cumulative.


Take me – Dissatisfied in an old relationship. Broke up. That was hard, that was sad, but in the end, I’m satisfied in my current state of affairs. Still am, think it’s reasonable to assume I’ll remain satisfied through future relationship decisions. Not safe to assume I’ll get to skip out on sadness and remain forever happy in relationships. See the difference?

Another personal example – quit my job. That was hard, that was sad, it was in lots of ways a very angry experience, but in the end, I’m satisfied. I will remain satisfied as long as I stay true to my values. Again, doesn’t mean I remain happy or eliminate all work-related anger. But, I am certainly more satisfied in the work-frustration I experience with this blog than the work-frustration I experienced analyzing a marketing budget. See what I mean?


Take a look at the life bubble you live in now. You created this bubble, you built up this environment, this everyday existence, with decisions you made or went along with. It’s yours. You are successful in environment-bubble creation because here you are in the center of it. You can create another environment, another bubble to live within. But, just like the bubble you sit in today, the new one will take time, tough decisions, and commitment to create.

Striving for satisfaction through a relentless effort to eliminate dissatisfaction is a way to grope your way through the blind chaos of existence and create your dream life bubble. It’s effective even if you can’t quite picture what that dream bubble looks like from your position today.  If you sit down and make a laundry list of all the things you are dissatisfied with in life, you’re going to have a bad time. Pick whichever one is top of mind and start feeling and thinking your way through that one. Evaluate your options. Make some hard choices. Once you arrive at satisfaction, on to the next one.

Upward and onward, folks, is better than the opposite.

It’s your life, pick your direction.

Blow some bubbles.

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