Scientific studies that force us to confront and reckon with our deeply held beliefs about ourselves can be the most destabilizing of all. One of those beliefs – that we’re meant to be happy – is a singularly American one, constantly reinforced in social science, technology, education and media.
But what if happiness isn’t our natural state? What if unhappiness – or, said in a more anodyne way, dissatisfaction – is actually our baseline?
That’s the premise of some interesting thinking posited in a story in The Guardian this week. In the article, entitled "Don’t try to be happy. We’re programmed to be dissatisfied," the writer explores a range of theories from optimistic bias to the Pollyanna Principle to the hedonic treadmill. And he reaches the conclusion that from an evolutionary point of view, dissatisfaction with the present is seminal to motivation.
That got me thinking, particularly about the work we do in marketing and communications.
If the world we’re filled with fully satisfied us – "happy" people – there would be no striving, no ache. It might be a Huxleyan nightmare of soma-stoked numbness and apathy. In a world where everyone is complete, there might be no art, no music, none of the achievements – from architecture to commerce to technology – that define us as human. Because to be human is to be dissatisfied and restless, to feel the void and to work to fill that void. Perhaps the human condition is to reckon with the relative emptiness, and to try and address what’s incomplete with accomplishment.
Dissatisfaction creates urge. Urge to create, to complete, to solve. Those of us who have chosen to make our living in marketing and communication know this at some level. We’ve chosen a field that demands frustration, insatiability and restlessness. Every day we are tasked with solving problems, creating solutions, besting what was done before. We work in a matrix (not in the sense of matrixed organizations, though that may be true). What I mean by matrix is the scientific sense – an environment or material in which something develops. It’s a matrix of competition, seen or unseen. A matrix of change. A matrix of complexity.
Nowhere in marketing is that complexity more evident than in business-to-business (B2B) marketing. Businesses grow geometrically more complex. Decision-making – always complicated in B2B and sometimes labyrinthine – has only gotten more so. Environments in which B2B companies market are characterized by explosions of legal, regulatory, reputational and, sometimes, political complexity. Technology is a boon, increasing velocity, reducing costs, making work possible in new ways; but it, too, introduces vast levels of complication to the nth degree.
And it is our job to simplify. Anyone can make things harder, more complicated. The real work is to take the abundance of complication that surrounds any problem and clarify it. When we succeed, it’s because we identify the essential human truth between a brand and its customer, and the idea that connects at a deeply human level. When we succeed, it’s because we strive to solve what hasn’t been solved, to complete what’s incomplete. The very work we do is an answer to the dissatisfaction and discontent that defines us as human.
When I finished reading The Guardian article, I was flooded with two sensations. Personally, I felt relief – that it’s normal to feel restive and unsettled. Professionally, I felt inspired on behalf of all of us who do the work we do, and the work to find what’s human and complete.