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Philosophical Satisfaction - Unpacking our Expectations

Do you think it’s possible to be truly satisfied with your work?

We live and work in environments where individuals, teams and companies all chase satisfaction. It’s common, for example, to consistently review and discuss employee or customer satisfaction, and many of us will have sought the satisfaction of our manager for a project or piece of work we have delivered.

And yet, “satisfaction” is famously hard to attain, it possesses a mystical unreachability.

Consider this article an opportunity for you to step back, and consider your relationship with satisfaction. By reflecting on what it means to us, how we might achieve it, and whether it should, in fact, be aimed for, we can uncover a better way to approach this relationship, especially where work is concerned.

Approaching satisfaction

Satisfaction falls into two categories; Satisfaction with self, and satisfaction with the outputs of others. It is causally linked to situations and, more specifically, the approval or disapproval we feel when we reflect upon how we handled a change.

In brief, it’s hard to be satisfied, or unsatisfied, without taking a moment to pause and consider the quality of the decisions you have made in any given situation.

Therefore, in a professional context whenever performance reviews, project assessments, or change programmes are being conducted, it is important to leave time for focussed consideration both during and after the event. This will ensure that you and your team’s relationship with satisfaction has been appropriately considered.

If reflection is a key ingredient for satisfaction at work, it would be useful to know what steps we can take to apply this for practical benefit. As such, here are three philosophies of satisfaction that can help us to do this:

  1. D.H. Lawrence and Antione De Saint-Exupery: Satisfaction is unattainable.

  2. Plato: Satisfaction is boring.

  3. Niccolo Machiavelli: Satisfaction only appears when perception and reality align.

Satisfaction is unattainable

The human capacity for historic contemplation and the dissatisfaction that follows is a surprisingly common theme in literature. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “over-thinking is the greatest sickness of modern civilisation”; Antoine De Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince said, “the people where you live… grow five thousand roses in the same garden… and they do not find what they are looking for”.

Lawrence and Saint-Exupery are alluding to the expectations we place upon ourselves and others, expectations that can often be unattainable. For Lawrence, an over-reliance on our capacity to think can lead us to misunderstand what satisfaction really feels like. For Saint-Exupery, the mistaken belief that “quantity elevates happiness” drives people to seek satisfaction from the wrong source.

It is the rose that we are satisfied with, not the number of roses, and reminding ourselves of this will enable us to have a more focussed relationship with satisfaction.

Satisfaction is boring

Plato in The Republic discusses our capacity for dissatisfaction, “the man who is ready to taste every branch of learning, is glad to learn and never satisfied”. However, the tone of Plato’s statement suggests dissatisfaction to be a positive, rather than a negative, human state. For Plato, to be satisfied is to reach a position of cognitive immobility, to restrict oneself to what is known or comfortable and miss out on overextending the self into exciting new possibilities. Plato finds satisfaction boring.

What we learn through Plato’s approach is that when we feel dissatisfied at work, we should reframe our experience to bask in the excitement of the unknown. By doing so, our relationship with satisfaction will be far less dull.

Satisfaction only appears when perception and reality align

The difference between our first two thinkers and Plato is perception, and this is where Niccolo Machiavelli takes the stage. In The Prince, he wrote, “everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are”. Our capacity for satisfaction, according to Machiavelli, relies heavily on how things appear, and whether we feel this aligns to our accepted reality. Too great a separation between reality and perception, and the less satisfied we are.

This poses a challenge in modern society where appearance takes such a prominent position in people’s perceptions of one another. No wonder we all struggle to reach a satisfied state if we are basing standards on inauthentic representations of our characters and capabilities.

Whilst performing our roles in work, we should bear this in mind and try to remember that the greater the similarity between our true selves and our presented selves, the more realistic our relationship with satisfaction will be.

Three practical steps we can take

So where does this leave us? Satisfaction is a state of mind resulting from our reflection upon a situation, and an approval of a decision that authentically represents the reality of our character.

As such, there are three steps we can all take to have a better relationship with satisfaction:

  1. Manage your expectations by developing a greater understanding of change – we can’t stop change from happening, but we can ensure we don’t unrealistically expect to control change, the result of which is an inevitable dissatisfaction with oneself. This will help make satisfaction attainable.

  2. Encourage self-awareness and situational reflection conversations – this will normalise people’s expression of authenticity, enabling more honest dialogues and feedback sessions between you and your colleagues. This will help align perception with reality.

  3. Nurture a Growth Mindset – meaning that we don’t view dissatisfaction as a negative, rather we view it as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our decisions more intimately. This will help reposition us if satisfaction becomes boring.


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