The Challenge of Living a Satisfied Dissatisfaction

Photo by Alex Proimos.
Photo by Alex Proimos.

Our human nature and cultural conditioning tend to pull us in opposing directions, constructing illusory dualities and false dichotomies within which we are forced to choose between apparently contradictory ways of being. However, if we look deep enough, we discover that these seemingly negating modes of existence are in fact complementary, representing extreme ends of a unified continuum that is foundational to our health and growth.

This is strikingly evident in the dynamic tension between satisfaction and dissatisfaction within human experience. On the one hand, it is not too difficult to make a persuasive case in favor of life satisfaction. Who doesn’t want to experience a significant level of satisfaction with one’s life? If a poll was conducted regarding the central goal of an individual’s life, I believe that a majority of people in virtually any cultural context would likely provide an answer revealing a desire for life satisfaction, whether it be in the name of “happiness” or something as a means to such an existential state. What do we typically say we want most for those whom we love? We want them to be happy. What do parents typically say they want most for their children? They want them to be happy. And what we essentially mean by “being happy” is to experience a meaningful sense of fulfillment and satisfaction with their lives.

There is no real shock or mystery here. As human beings, we seem to have an inherent need to experience a substantial degree of satisfaction regarding the status and quality of our lives. Indeed, our psychological health appears to truly depend, to a considerable extent, on such an experiences, and our lives often become problematic and difficult to navigate when we don’t experience them as satisfying and fulfilling. It is questionable whether anyone can persist for very long in a continual state of complete dissatisfaction. While a person may be able to endure such a condition for even an extensive period of time, it seems very unlikely, if not impossible, that one could do so and function productively.

So, life satisfaction appears to be absolutely essential to psychological health—we aren’t surprised—of course it is. But what about “life dissatisfaction?” Here, perhaps, the arguments and questions become less simplistic, more interesting, and much more disturbing. How often are many of us seriously considering whether the experience of dissatisfaction may also be as critically important to psychological health? While we may at times be willing to acknowledge potential benefits of feeling dissatisfied with life, or that we may need to be more aware of what we can learn from particular moments of dissatisfaction, this is not the same thing as confronting the bare fact that we need the experience of dissatisfaction as much as, if not even more than, the experience of satisfaction. I would suggest to you that this indeed is the truth of our human situation.

Think about it. We often live as if the ultimate goal of our lives is to reach and attain a state of complete satisfaction, fulfillment, or contentment, and as if any strong sense of dissatisfaction is the greatest danger. But what is the end result of such a way of life? Is it not stagnation, cessation, atrophy, and anaesthetized oblivion? Health means wholeness, and wholeness is only achieved through ongoing growth, which cannot occur if we stand still, or sit down, or stop moving forward.

The reality of the dynamics of growth is that an all-reigning satisfaction is its mortal enemy; the demand for supreme contentment and unending fulfillment is the death of growth. If we are completely satisfied with our lives as they currently are then we have no motivation to change or make them different, to further actualize unrealized potentialities and possibilities for what and how our lives can be. Therefore, we discover in the end that a truly authentic human existence depends entirely on the presence of a vital dissatisfaction with one’s life. As Nietzsche states in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885/1954):

What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue. The hour when you say, “What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness ought to justify existence itself.” The hour when you say, “What matters my reason? Does it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.” The hour when you say, “What matters my virtue? As yet it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil! All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.” (p. 125-126)

And also:

And life itself confided this secret to me: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must always overcome itself…where there is perishing and a falling of leaves, behold, there life sacrifices itself—or power…Only where there is life is there also will: not will to life but—thus I teach you—will to power. “There is much that life esteems more highly than life itself; but out of the esteeming itself speaks the will to power.” (p. 226-228) (italics in original)

These passages are deeply unsettling and yet also profoundly liberating. Our greatest hope to grow as human beings, to more fully realize our inherent power to become the people we are capable of being, is to be dissatisfied with and hold our present level of development in contempt, so to speak, to overcome and sacrifice our satisfied contentment.

However, the fundamental challenge is, of course, to maintain a balanced tension between the extremes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in our experience of our lives. For while we cannot grow without dissatisfaction, we cannot live at all without some degree of satisfaction. We must move between the existential modes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, we must know when to be satisfied and when to be dissatisfied with who we are and the present state of our lives. Perhaps the true secret is to learn how to be satisfied within our dissatisfaction and dissatisfied within our satisfaction.

Nietzsche, F. (1954). Thus spoke Zarathustra. In W. Kaufmann (Ed/Trans.) The portable Nietzsche. New York, NY: Viking Penguin Inc. (Originally published 1883-1885)

— Scott Kiser

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