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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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