Contentment is a pernicious motivational trick

What effect does fulfillment have on us? Far from making us eternally appreciative, a moment of true contentment makes us restless and decreases our satisfaction with the rest of our lives. At best, it’s a pernicious motivational trick that we play on ourselves.

Perfect experiences are fleeting but exceptionally memorable. We spend so much of our lives scheming to re-create or re-enter some paradise we briefly occupied, but the world is too complex for us to be able to remake a moment or, even more difficult, to sustain it. Perhaps you can return to your ex, enjoy the dance of flirtation, and bed her – all without a single glance over your shoulder. But you’re still a user, or she’s still a jerk, and you’ll soon find out that, together, you’re digging a new rung of hell. You might ‘have it all’ in a small or static universe; unfortunately, though, you’re a mortal speck, a mobile beaker.

Our happy memories lead us to favor engineering over serendipity. Our intelligence should allow us to recognize that bliss almost always takes us by surprise. Even when we expect great experiences and then have them, we are surprised by the way that they feel. Sure, the child knows that romantic love will be great, if shared; so will passionate sex, excellent food, a superb conversation, or solitude, under the right circumstances. But most often these situations occur despite our plans rather than because of them. And soon we become aware that our bliss could easily devolve into something less wonderful; fear and effort and calculation worm into the dream. Our pessimism is both correct and self-affirming. Once we are back to normal, our concern that contentment will not return on its own provokes us into pursuing it more fervently.

Or so it sometimes seems.


5 responses to “Contentment is a pernicious motivational trick

  1. Still, despite the randomness of much of what brings happiness, I do think one can to some extent set up circumstances in which it’s more likely to happen…


  2. Give me a few days to think about this… my head is about to explode, which isn’t an altogether bad thing, metaphorically speaking. The next best thing to happiness is to be momentarily distracted from one’s own unhappiness, and this mind-boggler did it for me. Philosophizing, earnestly thinking for a moment about what it is to be “human”, briefly relieved me from the burden of thinking about being me, released me from the hell of Self. Perhaps entertaining this question has even prepared me for my next bout of happiness.
    I like where Rebequita is headed…I think I’ve learned a few things about what TENDS to make me happy, and what TENDS to make me unhappy. Abandoning these hard-earned lessons would be as foolish as expecting history to recur.


  3. I think that we can, at the very least and possibly at the very most, predict and try to avoid what will make us unhappy. But my blog was about contentment/satisfaction, not happiness.


  4. Thanks for clarifying. I apologize for allowing myself to be thrown off course by the poster who introduced “unhappiness” into the discussion!
    At the most basic level, physiologists say that
    our brains often interpret thirst as hunger and dehydration as no thirst at all. At every meal there’s a twenty minute lag between adequate intake of calories and the feeling of satiety. Friends, alcohol, sex, romance… Every new factor we introduce increases the likelihood of dis-satisfaction.


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