Nowadays, it seems that everyone you know is invariably striving for more. Looking for more. Wanting more. Needing more. This comparative nature infects and affects everyone, even those of us that are the most persevering in our journeys. Lack of satisfaction has to be the most exhausting break in mental instabilities since the first addict discovered their very first dopamine fix, and the blitzed chase that followed soon thereafter.
Now, with the world available through a small, quadrate device in your hands, various accomplishments taking place around you seem to follow you every minute of everyday, from your morning ritual of scrolling down your Instagram feed, to your peers and colleagues snapping away in their Snapchat stories, filled with the fun frenzies of living. And while you're happy for those in your inner circle, there also rises the natural feeling of a disconnect between you- that is, your brain- and the satisfaction of your personal goals and achievements.
Humans are insatiable creatures. You can try to put out the fire, or fill the appetency as you map out your next perpetrated challenge, but upon reaching your goals, there doesn’t seem to be a moment where you throw in the towel and tell yourself, “Yeah, this is it. I’ve had enough for one lifetime.”
There are several reasons for this dissatisfaction. On paper, long, hard-working hours put towards your dreams and aspirations should, at the very least, grant you an unbounded pat on the back- but that doesn’t seem to be case for any of us caught in the frailties of being human and chasing our happiness.
Dopamine is the natural chemical released when associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. However, research has proven that dopamine receptors aren’t contingent on enjoyable sensations alone, but studies have proven that un-pleasurable sensations are associated with the release of the chemical as well. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, scholar and author of, “Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment” seems to have cracked the key to dopamine release: Novelty.
In his experiment, Berns case-studied patients, simulating a previous study by Cambridge professor Wolfram Schultz. What Schultz identified in his study, was that within monkeys, dopamine would fire off both during expectation of and upon receiving a reward- in this case, fruit juice.
Berns used a similar object of analysis: Patients were either given water, as the control, or kool-aid, as the reward, expelled in squirts onto the back of their tongues. The participants would then be asked to swallow, in order to see whether or not the fMRI machine would detect an accretion of dopamine levels in brain activity. The experiment concluded that a greater amount of dopamine was released during the process of feeling the unknown liquids, rather than when swallowing them.
The striatum of the brain, the part that controls multiple cognitive actions and reactions, in particular recognition of reward and reinforcement, activated dopamine receptors whenever the examinee felt a new sensation coming along. Furthermore, the study concluded that the most dopamine receptors were fired when an unpredictable array of liquids hit the patient's tongue. The less organized the squirts were, the more excited the patients became.
Thus, this brings us to a simple conclusion: What seems to you as dissatisfaction isn’t due to lack of fulfilment or incapability, but a natural reaction to the predictability of what supersedes the initial spur of pleasure.
There’s a psychological term for the state of mind that causes your happiness to bounce back to “normal” levels: Hedonic Adaptation. Hedonic Adaptation is when your noggin has adjusted to your new happiness life, like a new relationship or buying your first house. Your mind is then back into your previous levels of contentment. So, that euphoria of first driving off in your newly purchased car may last several days, or even weeks, but as the novelty wears off, your levels of happiness return their normal state, and you may find yourself dreaming of your next ride.
Hedonic Adaptation is, in it’s own way, a kind of “super-power” we’ve been blessed with. No matter what you’ve faced, be it good or bad, your ability to resettle into your initial levels of comfort and happiness is what helps us surpass the lowest points of our lives, and snaps us out of the fog of fulfillment during the honeymoon phases.
This seems to indicate that “happiness” is a fleeting concept. No matter what goals you reach, you will inevitably revert into your “normal” routine.
Now the bigger question: Is there a way we can psychologically skirt around this?
The answer is, in short: Yes, if you can keep the novelty flowing.
For one thing, it’s important to recognize that this reaction in the brain isn’t a negative component. In fact, such an initial reaction incites creativity, drive and passion. Humans always want what they can’t have.
There is a need for novelty, just as Berns dedicates a complete chapter in his novel to, but predictability keeps us comfortably adequate. Predictability is useful in keeping us grounded. The next time you find yourself envying a new goal, or mapping out a plan to reach the next level, remember it’s your strive for a feeling of originality that is fueling your momentum.
When it becomes that your need for novelty begins to take a toll on yourself and your health, that’s when the drive for newfound experiences becomes an unfavorable fixation. In layman’s terms, you can openly seek and invite novelty into your everyday life, but don’t lose yourself in the obsession.
But I’d like to take a moment to address another affair taking up space in the battle of novelty and soundness; It seems throughout the years we’ve lost the most treasured propensity of our labors and strives: Living in the present moment. We’ve adapted a burdened psyche of why bother enjoying now? Before you begin thinking about the next step to take, the next obstacle to face, the next mountain to climb, to live in the present moment is vital to a happier life. A thirst and willingness to accept and thrive within new experiences seems to be the key to keeping a consistent flow of satisfaction.
With a fortitude to enjoy experiences from every accessible angle, you will find that the severed interconnection of your inner and external world can be mended, satisfaction and happiness possible- even if you don’t have that new pair of Louboutins that you’ve been eyeing for a month.