In my coaching practice, I routinely encounter people who in the words of Mick Jagger “can’t get no satisfaction.” The trouble is, that in several aspects of my life, I can relate. It isn’t that we’re malcontents with unrealistic expectations of life. It’s that we’re discerning individuals who know the difference between primary and secondary satisfactions. The former, which most of us yearn for, are often hard to come by in our hyper busy culture of instant gratification and surface connections. And the latter are merely surrogates that take the sting out of feeling empty. Let’s explore the distinctions further.
Primary satisfactions are what make life worth living. While the forms they take vary from person to person, the underlying impulses are usually the same. Among them are feeling cared for and supported, contributing to something meaningful and worthwhile, being pleased with ourselves, and helping others, to name a few. When we don’t experience these, because we dwell in toxic environments or lack time and energy, we reach for convenient placeholders. For example, we’ll substitute entertainment for companionship, status for achievement, looking good for feeling good, and donating money for investing time. Now let me be clear, entertainment, status, good looks and money are fine, they’re just not sufficient for a happy life.
The trap of secondary satisfactions also shows up in subtler ways. I often experience it in my eating habits. I reach for sugar when I long for pleasure, salt when I want flavor or excitement, and fat when I need comfort. The sad truth is that I’m not alone in my behavior. Millions of Americans are just like me, which is why it’s no surprise that so many of us are living with diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
We aren’t to blame for our current state. After all, our culture and economy are built upon secondary satisfactions. Yet, if we ever want to be and live well, we are going to have to depart from the status quo to pursue what we really want in life. This takes courage because it requires authenticity and comes with no short cuts or quick fixes. To get satisfaction, we have to risk being real with ourselves and with others. And this will cost us, our defenses, illusions and maybe even some relationships. But what we stand to gain from our audacity is priceless – more experiences of genuine fulfillment and unfettered joy.