A major source of motivation in life is dissatisfaction with our lot, when we become aware of a gap between where we are and where we want to be. It could be to do with work, domestic or financial circumstances, or just about any important aspect of life.
Being dissatisfied is not necessarily motivating in itself. Other things have to be in place in order for us to attempt to close the gap: we need to have a reasonable idea of where it is that we want to be, for instance; and we need enough confidence in our ability to get there, or else we may end up rationalising the situation and convincing ourselves it’s OK to stay where we are.
However, placing too much emphasis on achieving certain goals can become an unhelpful mental habit: as soon as one goal is attained, the next one begins to loom. Life can become consumed by addressing inadequacies, always imagining that sorting out the next will really make a difference. But often we entrust our wellbeing to things that won’t ultimately satisfy us, and the mindset of constant striving is not conducive to peace and tranquillity.
So we should heed the very sound advice to cultivate gratitude about what’s good right now and adopt an attitude of contentment, simplifying our life and savouring the present as much as we can.
But is there a danger that making progress on wanting less will have the disturbing effect of sabotaging our motivation to move towards meaningful goals?
There is another point of view to consider: allowing our dissatisfactions to be the sole drivers of motivation can lead to placing too much focus on escaping the present and to losing our sense of perspective. Far from meaning stagnation, being more at ease with where we are means our motivation can be pulled by what we see as good rather than pushed by what is bad. Reconciling contentment and motivation may be a bit of a balancing act but it is one that is worth undertaking.
Jiro Ono, the great Japanese sushi chef, sounds like a man who is blissfully content with his lot. “Even though I’m 85 years old, I don’t feel like retiring,” he tells documentary maker David Gelb in the brilliant film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. “I feel ecstatic all day,” he says, “I love making sushi … I’ve never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.”
And yet in another way Ono is “never satisfied”, says food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto. “He’s always trying to find ways to make the sushi better, or to improve his skills.” Ono confirms this, in word and deed. The film portrays his relentless striving for excellence but he acknowledges, “Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection.”
This invites the suitably zen-sounding question: is the secret of happiness never to be completely happy?
We can sensibly ask questions such as this because words such as “happy” and “content” are susceptible to different meanings depending on context. “Satisfied” is a particularly slippery concept. Say of some people “they’re never satisfied” and you mean that they are miserable no matter what happens and are unable to make the most of the good things they have. Say this of an artist, however, and you need make no assumptions at all about how jolly they are – you simply understand that they always strive to be better. That solves the paradox of Ono: sometimes it is precisely because there is more that can be done, improvements that could be made, that people remain in love with their work and rise at each new dawn with fresh enthusiasm.
In a similar way, it is good that we are not content with all the injustice and preventable suffering in the world. That is bound to affect our cheerfulness more than coming across a blemished piece of tuna, but seeing that all is not good need not make us only feel bad. Motivation and happiness require both contentment and discontentment – but of the right kind, in the right proportion.
The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England.
To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org