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Archive for October, 2007

Anything that contributes to a person’s satisfaction or happiness can be considered a “resource.” Thus, a spouse, car, musical instrument, that trip to Hawaii, your job or even the mother of all resources — money — can be considered a satisfaction or happiness resource. Each contributes in some way to our overall levels of satisfaction and happiness.

Based on our buying behavior, you’d think that material things are the single largest and most important source of satisfaction. And for many they are. We’re buying all the time. Buying is very satisfying. It feels good. It stimulates and rewards us both physically and psychologically.

But it may not be our most important resource. That’s because resources related to purchasing are usually expendable. They don’t last long. Take the trip to Hawaii. You’re there for a week and the trip is very satisfying, with the lapping waves, the breathtaking sunsets and the cool Mai-Tai on the veranda.

But then it’s over and so is the trip as a source of extended satisfaction. We have our memories, but it’s not the same. And unless we have unlimited or outstanding wealth, another trip to the islands is going to be awhile. And even if we go back, it may not be as satisfying as the first time when everything was new and fresh to us.

Perhaps our greatest satisfaction and happiness resource is not a purchase but our mental ability — the ability to think, dream, act, create, feel, manage and even control. Our minds are the ultimate satisfaction and happiness resource. Even a purchase starts with a mental act. How you think, what you think, and even why you think it have a greater impact on your overall satisfaction and happiness than perhaps any single source at your disposal. If you are not satisfied or happy, you might start looking there first.

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If we spend a large portion of our waking day in some job or career activity, then it makes sense that work must play a significant role in our satisfaction “system.” And it does. Studies show humans derive a significant amount of satisfaction (and some dissatisfaction) from their work environment.

In fact, some people derive most of their satisfaction and stimulation from work. The 32-year-old entrepreneur with $100 million in the bank and a mansion in Silicon Valley. Or the lawyer who puts in 80-hour work weeks to become a partner. These people are not satisfied unless they are spending every minute of every waking day in pursuit of some job or career goal.

Are they unhappy? Not necessarily. For them, if they know that work is a major source of satisfaction, then pursuing that “pleasure” reinforces their behavior and continues to contribute to their overall level of satisfaction and happiness.

But there are two dangers. First, this pursuit can run into conflict with other potential sources of satisfaction (especially those associated with relationships). Second, the individual might assume incorrectly that those around him or her should obtain the same level of satisfaction that he or she derives from work and when they don’t — there’s likely conflict.

There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with making one’s work THE primary source of satisfaction. Chances are good that singlemindedness will result in successful outcomes, therefore increasing the likelihood of even greater satisfactions. But if that work is one’s only life pursuit and he or she is still not very satisfied, then there might be something wrong with that picture.

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Recent neuroscience research has unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding how the brain handles positive emotion. For example, on its website the Society of Neuroscience points towards research projects that looked at the differences in the brain between pleasant and unpleasant emotions.

In one study of brain-damaged individuals, for example, researchers found that patients who were prone to pathological laughing or bursts of euphoria tended to have damage on the right side of the brain. In contrast, patients who were prone to pathological crying or depression tended to have damage on the left side of the brain.

Another study which measured brain activity indicated that pleasant film clips, pleasant tastes and cash incentives increase left-side brain activity near the forehead. Unpleasant film clips, unpleasant tastes and a threat of cash loss raise right-side brain activity near the forehead.

Even infants apparently show these differences. Babies who tend to cry when separated from their mothers also tend to have lower left and higher right-sided prefrontal activity compared with non-wailers.

What does this mean for the rest of us? It strongly implies that there are biological (and even genetic) differences that account for our “sunny” or “sour” dispositions. Thus, while there is much about satisfaction and happiness we can control, there are some parts of both that we cannot.

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Do people need goals to be satisfied or happy? It’s an important question since so much emphasis is placed in modern societies on the development, pursuit and achievement of goals. Get your degree. Work towards a promotion. Run a marathon. Learn a new skill. Without question, goals are the lifeblood of our daily lives.

But do we need them? Do we need them to be happy? Can a person be perfectly satisfied or happy with few, if any, goals or is that humanly impossible? Are humans hard-wired to accomplish things?

There appear to be no easy answers.

On the one hand, we disparage people we perceive as being without goals, calling them “slackers” or “deadbeats.” At the other extreme, however, we also question the behavior of super over-achievers — those people hell bent on squeezing one accomplishment after another in every day, every month, every year — sometimes every hour!

Meanwhile, we admire people who can “enjoy the moment” without a goal — people, for example, who drop what they’re doing and run outside to witness a fleeting double rainbow after a rainstorm. But we often applaud stories in the news about people who overcome tremendous personal or physical odds to accomplish amazing feats through an elaborate set of goals. In short, we are conflicted. We don’t really know what to make of goals. We assume they’re good for us, but how much and for what purpose?

Perhaps the simple answer to the question as to whether or not we need them is — “most likely, but not necessarily.” For most of us goals are an important part of our satisfaction “system.” They can contribute greatly to our overall satisfaction and happiness and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence (perhaps even research) to suggest that the pursuit of goals themselves is just as satisfying, if not more so, than the end result.

But they may not be the end-all-to-be-all as some people would lead us to believe. A life without some or many goals may not be a bad thing. If the Eastern religions have taught us anything it’s that we can live in the present and that in itself is satisfying .

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Whenever we talk about satisfaction, we tend to assume that there is one basic kind of satisfaction. For example, most customer satisfaction surveys make that assumption. A satisfaction survey may ask patients after surgery if they liked a hospital’s level of professionalism, timeliness, and friendliness. The results show that for each one of these elements the hospital achieved a certain rating of “satisfaction.” The satisfaction they are talking about, though, is one dimensional. A person is either satisfied or they are not (at some level).

The reality is — there are all kinds of satisfactions.

For example, we know that anticipating an event or the purchase of a product can be just as, if not more, satisfying than the event or the product itself.

Take your favorite singer. You buy tickets two months in advance and you literally can’t wait to see his or her performance. In that instance, the anticipated satisfaction (also called expectation or projected satisfaction) is a feeling in and of itself.

Things get interesting when the anticipated satisfaction doesn’t match the actual event or product. Let’s go back to the singing performance. Perhaps you’ve been planning this concert to celebrate your 25th wedding anniversary. But on the day of the event, you’re running late from work, it’s raining hard as you drive to the stadium, and then you’re charged $10 for parking. To add insult to injury, the performer doesn’t have the same set of pipes he had when he was 35 and is just going through the motions. Those high expectations of what you thought would be a highly satisfying event suddenly fall like a rock.

We derive a great amount of satisfaction (and ultimately happiness) from things we anticipate happening in the future — perhaps more so than the future itself.

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Why do some people get bored so easily and others do not? Why, for example, can one person fully enjoy watching a sunset and another person find the experience just about the most useless, mind-numbing experience on the face of the planet?

The answer to those two questions could lie in how each one of us uniquely seeks and avoids certain levels of stimulation. Think of the person we might label as a “hell raiser.” They are constantly seeking and often finding a high level of stimulation. Wild parties. Maybe racing a motorcycle at two in the morning. At the other extreme is the Buddhist monk, who has purposely reduced his interaction with minimal external stimulation. And yet, both may be very satisfied with their situation — perhaps even happy about it.

Unless we are indeed Buddhist monks, the rest of us seek certain levels of stimulation, which in turn generates arousal in our nervous system. Some people require greater levels of stimulation than others, which Dr. Maynard Shelly calls “H-Types (for High levels of stimulation). Those with a low need for stimulation are called “L-Types.”

Why is this significant? Because it explains, in part, some behaviors and attitudes. If someone has a high need or threshhold for stimulation and doesn’t get it (or it runs out), he or she will most likely say they are “bored.” That in itself may not have much significance unless this constant “thirst” for stimulation is thwarted (thereby elevating a level of frustration or anger) or if this behavior leads to other pesonal choices that may not be in the long-term interest of the individual. For example, the addictive power of cocaine and its stimulating high can lead to other negative behaviors (such as theft or poor work performance). To compound the problem, the high wears off and it takes more cocaine to sustain the same stimulation — a vicious cycle with no positive outcome.

The quest for stimulation and avoidance of boredom can be seen as one of the primary drivers of human behavior today.

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A recent study strongly suggests that positive thinking has no impact on cancer survival rates. Here’s an article on the study.

The newly published study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine looked at 1,093 patients with head and neck cancer who were asked to complete quality-of-life questionnaires during their treatment. A total of 646 patients died during the study follow-up. Even after acounting for other variables that could affect survival, a patient’s emotional state was found to have no bearing on whether or not the person lived or died, according to the study. According to behavioral scientist James C. Coyne, PhD, who led the study team, this research supports a growing amount of research that shows no scientific basis for the popular notion that an upbeat attitude is critical for “beating” cancer.

That’s not to say that cancer patients shouldn’t remain upbeat and participate in group forums, meditation and other activities to relieve any pain and suffering, but the research does appear to conclude there is little evidence that positive thinking alone directly affects cancer growth.

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Are satisfaction and happiness the same thing? Not necessarily. For example, a person could express some degree of satisfaction and that satisfaction could contribute to that person’s overall feeling of happiness. But if you were to ask them if they were happy, they may say they are not. Why is that?

One way to look at happiness (and it’s certainly not the only way) is to think of happiness as our overall evaluation of a combination of satisfactions, especially over time. In other words, if our job is going well, home life is fun and rewarding, and we enjoy reading a good book, seeing a movie from time to time, meeting friends, and going on vacations — we are likely to say that we are happy. Of course, it’s equally true that you could be experiencing all of those things and still not be happy, but generally — the greater number of satisfactions reported, the greater the likelihood of a person reporting they are happy. It’s how we manage our satisfactions and dissatisfactions that, in fact, contributes to our overall feelings of happiness and unhappiness. The two are highly interrelated.

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We all know buying something can be pretty satisfying. But we often have to weigh that satisfaction with the fact that we must to pay for it, which can sometimes be downright painful. A recent study suggests that this pleasure/pain battle is common in our brains when we buy things and explains why paying with a credit card is so much easier.

The study testing this hypothesis (as explained in this WebMD article by Miranda Hiti) involved giving 26 healthy young adults $20 to spend and then studying their brains with Functional MRI scans. When the students liked an item, a certain brain area called the nucleus accumbens was particularly active. But if they thought items were overpriced, another brain area (the insula) became more active and a third brain area (the mesial prefrontal cortex) became less active. Researchers concluded from the results that when people are deciding whether to buy something, their brain apparently weighs the pleasure of making the purchase against the pain of spending the money.

“The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the brain frames preference as a potential benefit and price as a potential cost,” the researchers write.

This could explain why paying with a credit card is so much easier for us — it delays or removes the “pain” associated with paying for something in our brains, even if we know that paying for that item over time will cost us more money in the long run. We choose the short-term benefit or pleasure for the potential long-term “pain.”

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Don’t try to be happier. That’s the advice given by a researcher at the University of Virginia after he and his colleagues recently finished conducting a multi-cultural study on happiness. The reason for this advice? Psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi says in this Science Daily article that…

…people who become accustomed to numerous positive or happy events in their life are more likely to take a harder fall than people who have learned to accept the bad with the good. And because negative events have such a strong effect when occurring in the midst of numerous positive events, people find it difficult to be extremely happy. They reach a point of diminishing returns.

The advice to not try to be happier is somewhat misleading and doesn’t appear to accurately summarize the thrust of the research, which (a) shows cultural differences for happiness, (b) advises people to take the good with the bad, and (c) advises people not to pursue extreme happiness because you are bound to be disappointed.

We can all strive to be happier and achieve it. Life is filled with countless examples of people who have consciously changed their circumstances, behavior or their thinking and, as a result, have improved their lives — to the point where they would say they are indeed happier. Happiness is not a fixed position. It is a constantly evolving human condition dependent on a number of different (and sometimes competing) factors. There’s no guarantee we will achieve happiness, but that doesn’t mean that most of us shouldn’t try.

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Could you “party hard” for a week straight? That is, could you go non-stop drinking alcohol (or drugs) and doing all of the other things that is generally associated with typical “hard partying” for a constant seven days and seven nights?

Many college students would likely say — bring it on! But it may not be as easy as it seems. In fact, for most of us — it may be darn near impossible, if not highly improbable.

Why is that? Why are we not likely to party hard for a week straight? The answer to that question may be both simple and complex, but there’s no doubt it’s central to the entire discussion about the psychology of satisfaction.

This scenario was actually posed by Dr. Shelly in his class many years ago (if my memory serves me correctly). Basically, he said at the beginning of the semester that there were a number of ways in which to get a good grade, and one of them was to literally party day and night for a week. Did anybody take him up on it? Don’t know. But it’s an intriguing and perhaps tempting test.

So why wouldn’t most of us be unable to fulfill the requirement? The simple answer is — we wouldn’t be able to maintain the same level of external and internal stimulation during that time. At some point we are likely to be either overstimulated (and thus find the experience very dissatisfying) or oversaturated and bored with the same level of stimulation, in which case we need to find even more stimulation to maintain the status quo.

Could it be that too much stimulation is not a good thing? You bet. Yet the other interesting thing to note – our acceptance level of stimulation is individually set. That is to say — we each respond to different levels of stimulation in different ways. Here’s an obvious example — some of us love really big, scary rollercoasters (highly stimulating), while some of us are scared to death of them and won’t go on them. Any discussion of satisfaction and happiness gets complicated because of these individual tolerance levels of stimulation and arousal.

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Perhaps one of the simplest ways to think about satisfaction and happiness is in terms of a “system.” We all know systems, even if we don’t call them that. Most of know about weather “systems.” Different elements combine to give us our particular weather for a particular day in a particular place. Think about a car engine as well. It’s a system. Different components are combined to help us power or propel the car forward. The different components are resources, such as your foot on the pedal, the spark from a spark plug, and the pistons that move up and down. The result (or “output”) is the acceleration.

Satisfaction and happiness are the same. Each is a system with “inputs” and “outputs.” We do things or things are done to us and there’s a result. Eat your favorite ice cream and you will probably feel satisfied. But if someone throws that same ice cream and it smacks you hard in the face — the outcome is probably going to be different. Chances are, in fact, you’re going to be highly dissatisfied (perhaps irate).

The satisfaction system consists of all of those factors which affect satisfactions, dissatisfactions, happiness and unhappiness, and the interrelationships between these factors. That, in part, is what makes it so complex. We’re talking about a lot of different factors, including environmental, personal, social, financial, and many others.

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In the mid-1970s as a junior at the University of Kansas, I took a class from Maynard W. Shelly, a long-haired, mustached professor in the psychology department. I had no great expectations for the class. I had heard through the grapevine that it was a relatively easy class to get a good grade, and at the time I was in the hunt for A’s or B’s in order to improve my GPA. But there was another reason I took the class. I was intrigued by its title — The Psychology of Satisfaction. Was there really such a thing? Could someone actually learn about what made someone happy, sad, satisfied or dissatisfied? Over the course of 15 weeks, I was about to find out.

What I learned had a profound effect on me then and continues to have a profound effect on me today. In fact, it’s fair to say that no class before or since has had such an impact on my life.

Why is that? How could one class have stayed in my consciousness all these years? Perhaps it’s just intellectual curiosity. I find it an endlessly fascinating subject and keep coming back to the topic as something to learn, explore and analyze.

Then again, it could just be that I, like most other people, have a vested interest in the outcome. I mean, wouldn’t it make sense that if I better understood what satisfied me and those around me that it would, in turn, likely to lead a happier, more satisfying life? This topic is very personal to me and has tremendous implications in my thinking and behavior.

But it could also be quite simply that I am convinced (now more than ever) that practically every corner of the globe — every society, every individual and every inch of human behavior — is intimately tied into the pursuit of satisfaction or the removal of dissatisfaction (often simultaneously). In other words, this to me is the unified theory of human behavior — it’s the theory that ties all behavior together, however large and small. Thus, for that reason alone — it’s important, relevant and worthy of greater understanding.

Sadly, Dr. Shelly passed away several years ago, and I never had the pleasure of speaking with him again after our brief encounters in class. But his thoughts and insights continue, primarily through his writings and the work of the graduate students who worked with him. This blog is a tribute to the man and his ideas, and I hope that you find as much reward in reading it as I will find in its creation. Enjoy.

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