The Difference Between Happiness & Satisfaction: A Psychologist Explains
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that "Happiness is not a goal; it is a byproduct." As humans, we often believe that when we buy a house, or fall in love, or receive that well-deserved promotion at work, we will be truly happy. But why do we infer that happiness is only attainable through milestone events or achievements?
The reality of this tendency is that it may not be happiness that we are seeking and experiencing on a daily basis but instead satisfaction. Perhaps we live our day-to-day lives pursuing the things that make us happy, which then contributes to our overall sense of satisfaction.
If you look up happiness and satisfaction in a dictionary, the two definitions are quite similar. Both use words such as "joy" and "contentment," describing a pleasant and delighted emotion. But why is it then that people often say, "Do what makes you happy" but never think to advise "Pursue what satisfies you"? It may have a different ring to it, but it is a good indicator of a different sense of contentment.
We reached out to cognitive behavioral therapist and clinical psychologist Jennifer Guttman, Psy.D., to better distinguish happiness and satisfaction.
The difference between happiness and satisfaction.
Research1 shows that the most frequent uses of the word happiness revolve around describing someone's personality, as in being characterized as a happy person. It is also used in association with materialism and experientialism, conveying that when you purchase or experience something, you may experience happiness. Although definitions are vague and vary, happiness ultimately seeks to portray a moment of temporary bliss.
"Happiness is fleeting," Guttman explains. "Happiness is a feeling someone gets when they experience something out of the ordinary that brings them joy. With that feeling, a neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released, which gives us an elevated mood state. However, this elevated mood state is not sustainable because it's reliant on the release of this neurotransmitter."
Satisfaction, on the other hand, is an enduring feeling experienced for a longer period of time, as a result of the collection of life events and feelings you've experienced. Guttman describes satisfaction as a more balanced, sustainable state because it's not neurotransmitter-dependent the way happiness is.
Or as Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., Nobel Prize winner and psychologist, explained in his TED Talk, we experience happiness in our lives as well as happiness with our lives. This latter principle is akin to the concept of satisfaction, which we experience more frequently and thus influences our attitudes and behaviors2. Satisfaction is a better indicator of how content we feel toward our lives overall and may contribute to more mindful decisions that bring our lives meaning.
For example, you come home from a long day at work and are greeted by a package at your front door of a new pair of shoes that you had ordered a few days prior. At the moment of opening that package, you might experience excitement and happiness. The moment then passes, and you are onto your next activity. However, each day you wear those shoes, you are reminded of your purchase and are satisfied. Therefore, feeling satisfied has a longer-lasting impact on people's moods, whereas experiencing happiness is an instantaneous, temporary sensation.
Which is more important?
Guttman describes satisfaction as a more long-term and tangible solution than happiness. "When people think 'happy' as joy or effervescence is attainable, it creates cognitive dissonance when that feeling is not sustainable," she explains.
That said, happiness and satisfaction are intertwined, as "most people experience satisfaction on an ongoing basis, interspersed with moments of happiness," Guttman explains. "They are both attainable, but satisfaction is more sustainable."
Life satisfaction is often associated with positive mental and physical health and contributes to overall well-being3. Other research also suggests that strong personality traits are linked to having high life satisfaction4. Additionally, recognizing your feelings of satisfaction may contribute to a more mindful and positive way of living. These attributes may help shift your perspective on your own life and leave you feeling more purposeful and fulfilled.
How to get more satisfaction in your life:
Develop a strong sense of self.
"People become more satisfied by becoming more self-confident, self-reliant, by developing a strong sense of self, by developing a sense of their effectiveness in the world, and by believing in their inherent lovability," Guttman says.
To strengthen your sense of self, she recommends finishing tasks (not just starting them), making decisions for yourself, facing fears, and avoiding people-pleasing behaviors. Facing your fears, for example, may not make you happy—but it sure is satisfying.
Write down at least one good thing that you experience each day.
As the saying goes: Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day. Especially in today's current climate, you may feel that your daily routine has become redundant and complacent. However, it is all about where you channel your energy and focus. Whether you meet an old friend for lunch or go for a relaxing bike ride, write it down. Those moments will turn into memories and will leave you feeling 5more grateful and optimistic in the long run, as you are able to go back and read them. The benefits of gratitude are all about creating a sense of lifelong satisfaction, as opposed to simply seeking moments of exuberant happiness.
Put yourself out there.
Some research suggests extroversion is associated with more life satisfaction and overall well-being. Despite this pandemic, it is easier than ever to reach out to someone and make a new friend. From becoming a pen pal with a patient in a nursing home to just messaging an old friend you've lost touch with, you may rekindle or create new friendships that could enhance your interpersonal skills and revitalize your daily routine.
The bottom line.
Making happiness your destination may cause you to miss out on this exciting journey of life, a journey that has many twists and turns, with new opportunities appearing each day. Recognizing what makes you feel satisfied, on the other hand, can contribute to a more positive attitude and outlook on life while feeling more fulfilled. By living through this lens, we can experience not just moments of happiness but a lifestyle that is enduringly satisfying.