Do you ever find yourself wondering “Is this all there is? This home? This partner? This job? Shouldn’t things be better?” The popularity of the song ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones suggests that a certain element of impatience with life, even futility and disillusionment, is not uncommon.
“I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no”
(Rolling Stones) Listen here
So why can’t we find and keep that feeling of satisfaction?
A perspective from positive psychology
The field of positive psychology suggests some obstacles to satisfaction.
The first obstacle is a hedonistic attitude. This is mistakenly assuming personal satisfaction only comes from ‘wine, women and song’. The sensory pleasure of the moment may come from any number of things e.g. watching exciting sport or letting your hair down at a party, or enjoying good drink and food. But by prioritising pleasure one neglects engagement in meaningful activity and personal relationships that furnish a sense of satisfying purpose to your life.
A second obstacle to satisfaction is being focused on possible dangers around us. This is having a negativity bias. For example being more likely to remember and take seriously a putdown, criticism or insult than a piece of positive feedback or compliment. No wonder you are unhappy if this is preoccupying your thoughts.
A third obstacle is the attitude of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ Comparing oneself with others often results in feeling diminished e.g. if our furniture, car, holiday, or clothes happen to be less smart than theirs.
A fourth obstacle is having low self-control. We tend to act as if satisfaction results from giving in to our natural desires. So we want something now rather than later. However, it is the controlling of such impulses that actually leads to happiness in the longer run. Putting off pleasures until later is necessary if we are to consistently pursue goals. For example if our aim is to repay a debt, then we may never achieve this if we spend money when we feel like it. Being impulsive can just create problems and frustration.
A spiritual perspective on satisfaction
I would suggest that a deeper appreciation of who we are profoundly influences our state of happiness. The obstacle here is our natural minded tendency. We each have a strong natural sense of self-awareness as a self-contained individual. We think ‘I am myself.’ ‘This is my body’. ‘This is my mind’. So we each seem to have a separate consciousness and life of our own. We live as if we were each an island unto ourselves. Out of contact with the notion of being connected to something bigger.
How then can this self-awareness reduce satisfaction? After all, my sense of self is crucial. It gives me a sense of individuality and thus an important feeling of freedom and responsibility for personal choices.
We feel full of life, we have the experience of feeling and thought. So it comes as a bit of shock to hear it suggested that we’re actually not what we think we are. That all our feelings and thoughts are not our own but come from outside of ourselves.
Yet this is exactly what several spiritual traditions maintain. They say this perception of oneself as independently real is a mistake. Instead, it is suggested that there actually is only one Self. Not myself but rather the Self that is my creative origin and spiritual source. The Self that is for example the higher power of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement which has the ability to transform and heal the addict.
Or the Self of the mystics who speak of the One as the only reality. The one goodness we can all learn to experience. Theravada Buddhists analyse the human mind and soul as a cluster of forces. So they have a doctrine of no-self meaning that one’s self-hood is an illusion. Christians say God created us. Our life is not our own but a gift. For the Christian inspiration, higher thought and good intentions are actually the Spirit of God’s life present in us.
Likewise, the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg teaches that the only real life that gives happiness and satisfaction comes from the Divine Source Itself. If all of nature on earth is created by this spiritual origin of life, then it follows that we have no life of ourselves and are merely receivers of life from a higher source. In other words, as long as we only rely on ourselves for happiness then we will never gain real peace and satisfaction.
By the way this is not a way of claiming we cannot accept responsibility for how we lead our lives. I would suggest we have been gifted the freedom to choose to turn one way or the other. Nevertheless, if all goodness comes from the Source of Goodness then it follows that just of ourselves we have no power to do good or make ourselves happy.
Illusion as an obstacle to satisfaction
I’m saying then that this natural fallacy of the senses – that we possess life, abilities, strength and goodness of our own – can lead us astray.
Furthermore, because of the illusion of having life of oneself, we are at risk of falling into self-orientation with its dangers of self-serving and self-interested behaviour. Aren’t we thus liable to forget the needs of others, of the principles of living we have learned, and lapse into a state of feeling alone, empty and dissatisfied with life?
“In this negative state we are open to all the evils that accompany it. And closed to all that is good and true” (Michael Stanley, spiritual teacher).
Egotistically, believing in only ourselves, we come to assume that happiness can only come from bodily comfort, social status and power.
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems