Satisfaction. As our personal and professional worlds have been turned upside down these last few months, many of us find ourselves at a point of reevaluation and reflection. How satisfying was the balance of my life before the world was put on pause? How do I seek a more satisfying balance in the future?
This is important not only for our personal happiness, but for performance in the workplace as well. An increased sense of satisfaction has been shown to decrease stress, improve brain health, and boost cognitive function, making it easier to think creatively and solve problems.
Since satisfaction is so inherently desirable, it seems that it should be easier to achieve – that we would instinctively operate in ways that make it easier to achieve satisfaction. Yet for most of us, it remains a struggle. Why isn’t it easier to be satisfied?
In last week’s webinar, A Life Well-Lived? The Science of Satisfaction, Drew Rand, MRG’s I/O Psychologist, took on the topic, exploring what the roadblocks to satisfaction are – and how to remove them. You can catch up on the full webinar on-demand here, or read on for highlights, as well as a Q&A with Drew.
What’s stopping satisfaction?
Neuroscience can illuminate a few of the brain quirks that make it difficult to achieve satisfaction.
The first is the brain’s organizing principle: minimize danger, maximize reward. Unfortunately, the minimize danger aspect of this principle takes precedent and while it used to serve as a physical protection agent, it now incites us to look for psychological threats. Threat sensitivity leads to negativity bias or the tendency for negative stimuli to have greater effect on our psychological well-being. In short, we look for, pay attention to, and remember the negative stuff a lot more than the positive.
Evolutionary psychology sheds some light. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, uses a salient example. He says there were two types if mistakes our ancestors could make… with drastically different consequences.
- Mistake #1: Thinking there’s a tiger in the bushes when there isn’t.
- Consequence: Needless anxiety.
- Mistake #2: Thinking there’s no tiger in the bushes when there is.
- Consequence: Death.
As a result, our brains evolved to make Mistake #1 a thousand times rather than make Mistake #2 even once because you can make the first mistake a thousand times and still be alive.
Moreover, our brains find bad experiences more salient than good experiences – the bad sticks with us longer. (Think of your last cup of coffee – you probably enjoyed it, but do you remember much about it? Now what about the last time you spilled a hot cup of coffee on yourself – it’s probably a lot more memorable.)
Is there a recipe for a more satisfied life?
If our brains are not wired to lead us to a feeling of satisfaction organically, clearly it will require some work. But what should we be working toward? Is there a template for satisfaction? Is there any evidence that architecting a certain type of life leads to greater levels of satisfaction?
We conducted some research to look for answers. Using data from Personal Directions® – an assessment that measures an individual’s drivers, where they are placing their energy, and how they feel about their life – we explored whether there’s a correlation between how highly satisfied someone is and where the energy is in their life. The study captured data from 3,641 participants between 2015 and 2020.
Here’s what we found: nothing. Well, not nothing. We did find some patterns in motivation, life choices, and quality of life that correlated with higher satisfaction, and some that correlated with higher rates of dissatisfaction. (For a closer look at the Relative Importance Indexes, watch the webinar on-demand here.)
What was noteworthy about these findings, though, is that their significance, across the board, is relatively small. When we look at satisfaction, motivation correlations explain just 7% of the variance; life choice correlations, just 15%; even quality of life correlations explained just 32% of the variance. The data on dissatisfaction looks similar.
What does this mean? It indicates that there’s not a recipe for a more satisfied life. For the most part, individuals with a wide variety of motivation patterns, who place their energy in many different parts of their life, and who feel different ways about their lives, can experience different levels of satisfaction.
Don’t be disappointed. Really, this is good news. It means that a wide variety of approaches to life can lead to satisfaction. Your motivational profile is fairly well-established and hard to change; so fortunately, there’s no group or motivational profile who is out of luck based on these findings.
Where do we go from here?
There’s no simple recipe for satisfaction, but there are behaviors we can engage in to help us increase our satisfaction in everyday life – which, over time, helps us build a greater overall sense of satisfaction.
Cultivate habits that increase satisfaction
- Exercise more
- Shorten your commute
- Make time for family and friends
- Get outside
- Get more sleep
- Plan a trip (even if you don’t go)
- Practice gratitude
- Help others
- Separate reactions from experiences
Work on finding greater balance
It may sound obvious, but to increase satisfaction, you should increase your exposure to satisfying experiences, and decrease your exposure to dissatisfying ones.
It may not always be possible to do this. So when you do encounter dissatisfaction, work on changing your own response to it. Practice changing your behaviors in response to unpleasantness, working to improve the situation rather than dwelling in the negative.
Of course, this may be easier said than done – it will require some effort to retrain your brain. Try this exercise: be more attentive to everyday positive experiences; hold onto them for 10-15 seconds to grow new neural networks in the brain. Synapses will actually grow more efficient when this is repeated, making it easier to do over time.
Practice Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation
Step 1: What am I most sensitive to?
Self-awareness is at the heart of self-regulation. Developing self-awareness is a lifelong process; the Individual Directions Inventory™ is MRG’s tool to support self-awareness by helping to reveal deep motivational patterns. (If you’re unfamiliar with the assessment, learn more here or contact us with questions.)
Whether you use a tool or self-observation, you are trying to understand your biggest triggers (for example, criticism, uncertainty, exclusion, etc.). When you react, you are trying to reflect on how much of your response is based on the facts alone, and how much is based on what we feel or believe about these facts.
Step 2: How do I react?
Observe what happens when you react to these triggers. You may even want to keep a journal. When do these responses happen the most? How does your body respond? What are your emotional and psychological responses? What does your self-talk sound like?
Step 3: What helps alleviate these effects?
Establish the effective strategies to help you break the emotional cycle.
These could include:
- Having a conversation with yourself one week from now. What would you say to your future self about what’s happened, and about your reaction?
- Taking a pause: try to think rationally about your response. If you’re finding that difficult to do, consider distracting yourself with another task, and returning to the situation after you’ve stepped away and can think more clearly.
- Look for evidence: think about similar reactions you have had in the past, and be sure that those lessons inform your current reaction. Is your response evidence-based?
For all of these behaviors to stick, mindfulness and self-awareness is an essential component. Facilitating objective self-discovery using an assessment tool like the IDI or Personal Directions is one way to accelerate the process of self-awareness. But the work to leverage this greater level of awareness to create lasting satisfaction will be life-long – and it will look different for every individual.
Questions & Answers
Q: How does satisfaction relate to positive psychology?
A: I am not an expert in the construct of positive psychology, but what I can say is that positive psychology puts life satisfaction as a core tenet of its research and purpose. That is, the emphasis of positive psychology is to focus on the things in life that bring about happiness (e.g., relationships, health, financial well-being, etc.). Instead of trying to find satisfaction by eliminating or addressing the negative factors in life, positive psychology purports to focus on the “good” and increase those experiences.
If you’re interested in positive psychology, I would encourage you to look into works by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that 5 times fast!!).
Q: What link do you make with the concept of resilience?
A: This is a big question with no single answer, and it is somewhat “chicken and egg” – that is, does resilience lead to satisfaction, or vice versa? Research by Cohn, M. A.et al., (2009) indicates that people who live happier lives build resources for doing so (i.e., their development of resilience plays a factor in their life happiness). Others would argue that resilience predicts satisfaction (or well-being), and that optimism plays a mediating role in this relationship (Souri & Hasanirad, 2011). In short, the relationship between resilience and satisfaction isn’t a simple one, and there are other variables in play (e.g., optimism). The construct of resilience is gaining a lot of research traction these days, though, and I would expect continued research in this area will continue to shed light on how resilience plays a role in human functioning.
Q: What about satisfaction from someone (like me) who is high on Gaining Stature?
A: I love this question because it gets to the core of satisfaction and how/where it is defined. Now, the research would indicate that having a high or low score in Gaining Stature does not reliably predict satisfaction, which is important to remember. This said, those who are high Gaining Stature may place more emphasis on what they feel other people value and accept of them and thus, the route to satisfaction is through meeting those expectations. I love the complexity of the Gaining Stature dimension and for me (also high Gaining Stature!), it is about truly evaluating the expectations I am placing on myself through what I feel the world is asking of me. Do I really want this and do I truly believe it will lead to happiness, or am I doing this because I think the world (e.g., someone, some value, some expectation) is telling me it will? So, although this is anecdotal versus research based, I feel those who are higher in Gaining Stature sometimes have a more difficult time defining what happiness and satisfaction truly look like for them.
Q: In regard to the research – is it saying that people are more satisfied when they have less stability and Independence?
A: The research indicates that those who have lower scores in Stability and Independence are more likely to have higher satisfaction scores. This being said, the relationship is very weak so I would not put much, if any, stock in it.
Q: What role does culture (country) play in satisfaction? I’m reflecting on Expressing in cultures where it is discouraged.
A: This question was also asked during a webinar on this topic a few years ago, and I will put the answer here because the research was run then, but not most recently (I highly doubt anything has changed).
“Culture is always an important demographic variable to consider. To explore how it influences the relationship between satisfaction/dissatisfaction and other factors, we conducted the same statistical analyses with groups from different regions. We found very similar results for different regions in terms of variance explained, which suggests that cultural factors did not strongly influence the relationship between motivation or life architecture and satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Due to time constraints we did not look at all the countries in our sample separately, so it is entirely possible that some countries will show different patterns.”
Q: I would like to know if you found any differences in the data (statistically significant or not) for certain demographics (e.g. gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.)?
A: This question was also asked a few years ago with two separate responses.
Age, Gender, and Geographic Location:
“This was a question that we asked ourselves as we discovered the low amount of variance explained. As we mentioned during the presentation, this number is usually a lot higher in our research. To address this question we split the sample in different ways: gender, age group (e.g., 20s, 30s, 40s) and geographic location. The results from those analyses were very similar to what we found for the larger sample. This would lead us to believe that the factors related to satisfaction are truly specific to the individual. Because of this, we would expect that grouping the sample by management level would yield similar results. However, this would be interesting to explore in a future study.”
“This is a great question. We have not explored this in our research yet. However, we know that other research on career development shows that career satisfaction tends to increase with age. Extrinsic motivators (e.g., salary) appear to be an important factor for predicting career satisfaction early in people’s careers. Later on, intrinsic motivators (e.g., enjoying the work) appear to be responsible for increases in career satisfaction. This would suggest that once we reach a certain level of financial remuneration for our work, the ability to perform well at work, which increases with experience, is related to career satisfaction.
The question of generational differences is an interesting one and something we hope to address in a future study.”
Even though we have not conducted the research on generation as of yet, I would hazard a guess that we are unlikely to find any significant differences. I would find it much more likely to find significance differences based upon age (i.e., Life Stage) than generation and our research on age did not generate significant results.
Q: The saints seem to have one common dimension leading to satisfaction. Mother Theresa was frustrated at times, but said she led a satisfying life since she felt she was doing what God wanted her to do with her life. Other saints said peace of mind comes from believing the best way to deal with threats was to have a strong relationship with and trust in Christ. Your thoughts?
A: This is a difficult question to answer because we would have to make several assumptions. For example, we do not know that all Saints led fulfilling and satisfying lives. What I can say is that for some, a belief in a higher power provides comfort that may lead to a more satisfying life. Within Personal Directions, the Spiritual dimension speaks to placing time, energy, and value into spiritual (not religion specifically) aspects of life. The research would indicate that this dimension doesn’t predict satisfaction any better than other dimensions and thus, reinforces the conclusion that there is no universal formula for satisfaction. Some may find peace of mind within religion, but others may find it other places as well.
Q: Does growth mindset vs. fixed mindset play a role in our levels of satisfaction?
A: What a great question, and one that I do not know the “scientific” answer to (if there is one). I would imagine that those who move throughout life with a growth-oriented mindset experience less frustration and thus, more satisfaction. The positive outcomes of a growth mindset continue to emerge, and I would not be surprised if satisfaction makes the list soon!
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