The Evolution of Dissatisfaction

What moves us? Why do we keep going, always striving to better ourselves, our circumstances and the conditions of others? It isn’t completely rational. We all die in the end anyway so why does it seem so important for us to be here and give more and more? Why do we take life so seriously that we work so hard to not only maintain it, but improve it?

This question has troubled human beings for as long as we had the capacity to be troubled by such things. Luckily our care for life and its betterment seems to be impressed upon us to an extent that makes it unlikely that we will stop going on regardless of what answers we find.

One way to look at this question is the way that the American Pragmatist William James did. It is the experience of dissatisfaction that moves us ever onward. Think about the feeling of dissatisfaction – pure dissatisfaction of any kind. It could be hunger, or loneliness; it could be a puzzle that you can’t solve, an idea that you don’t understand or simply boredom. It could be an injustice, a wrong needing to be righted. Any of these things and many, many more can leave us with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Now think about the feeling. It has as part of its quality a certain uncomfortable quality. It is like an itch that has to be scratched. Part of the feeling is simply compulsion. You feel like you cannot leave it as it is. You must strive to alleviate the dissatisfaction and return to a satisfied state. This mechanism is what James felt drove human activity and human development.

If you feel satisfied, what do you do? Nothing. If you feel satisfied you stop activity. You feel no compulsion to do anything because everything is fine the way it is – at least to you. In states of deep satisfaction you literally don’t have any energy to do anything. I am not talking about laziness or inertia. This isn’t about not wanting to do anything or feeling apathetic. It is about contentment – contentment does not drive you to action. Discontentment and dissatisfaction does.

Another way to think about how human beings evolve is to think about it in terms of the evolution of what makes us feel dissatisfied. We can feel dissatisfied because we are hungry and we can feel dissatisfied because there are children all over the world who are hungry. These are two completely different levels of dissatisfaction and generally we consider people who are compelled to action by concerns with our world more highly developed than those who are only dissatisfied by personal concerns.

And so each of us can look for ourselves and see how true this is. Is it accurate to say that all of your actions are – or can be seen as – a response to some dissatisfaction or other? And if so what kinds of things compel you to act? What are you dissatisfied with and what does that say about the kind of person you are?

During this Holiday Season, dedicated as it is to goodwill toward all, this seemed like a good philosophical question to pose. And with that I wish all of my readers a happy holiday season filled with tidings of good cheer. May your dissatisfactions grow ever higher.