Meandering Through Definitions of Satisfaction

1. Noun: fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this (Oxford Languages)

In psychology, satisfaction is the strange cousin to happiness. While the tenets of positive psychology claim happiness is a fleeting emotion one has no control over, satisfaction is a sustained state that only arises from the result of one’s actions. According to psychiatrist Gregory Berns in Satisfaction, “satisfaction can arise only by the conscious decision to do something.” I am satisfied when I finish writing a short story, when I return a book to the library on the way home, when I submit a job application.

Seeking satisfaction over happiness is a theme in positive psychology, a movement garnering great success and cutting criticism. Its roots are traced to Martin Seligman’s inaugural address in 1998 where, as the new president of the American Psychological Association, he called for a reorientation of the study of psychology from treating mental illness to helping individuals flourish. Since then, a lucrative industry of bestselling books and sought-after counselling services bloomed and continued to thrive.

By offering ways and methods to achieve satisfaction, positive psychology is increasingly being compared to a religion. In the Vox article ‘Is Positive Psychology All It’s Cracked Up to Be?’ Joseph Smith observes that, 

…for a science, positive psychology can often sound a lot like religion. Consider its trappings: It has a charismatic leader and legions of rapturous followers. It has a year zero and a creation myth that begins with an epiphany. 

Often, religion is distinguished as the belief in a supernatural ruling power, but other definitions reveal that it can just as easily be a set of beliefs or practices without this element, or simply an “interest followed with great devotion” (Oxford Languages). 

Speculative fiction has explored implications for science intersecting with religion. This is best demonstrated in works such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower where Lauren Olamina’s religion, Earthseed, relies on scientific principles such as the second law of thermodynamics. The ultimate goal of Earthseed is also achievable by science: to take root among the stars, colonising space to ensure humanity’s survival. According to Kimberly J. Ruffin in her article ‘Parable of a 21st Century Religion: Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturistic Bridge between Science and Religion,’ “Butler urges her readers to consider the possibility that religion can be compatible with scientific advancements that may help secure the continuation of the human species.” This suggests that the pursuit of religion and science can have similar goals.

In Parable of the Sower, ensuring human survival is compatible with ensuring human satisfaction. Earthseed promises that ultimate satisfaction lies in striving for the goal of space travel to find more land for humans to live on. That goal alone seems unlikely to solve humanity’s problems. I think that speculative fiction still has plenty of room to examine other futures where satisfaction is sought in alternative ways.


2b. the quality or state of being satisfied (Merriam-Webster)

In Manufacturing Happy Citizens, critics of positive psychology suggest the field ignores that achieving wellbeing or satisfaction through one’s own efforts is not possible if systems exist to keep people in poverty and oppression.

If satisfaction is achieved through reaching goals, then proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement won’t be satisfied until systems that enable the deaths of black people are dismantled and recreated, reformed and defunded.

Often the rallying cry is for equality but, as Mona Eltahawy pointed out in a talk held by the ANU BIPOC Department, equality is often on the terms of an existing system. Freedom from the system should be the rallying cry, and those of us calling for freedom will not be satisfied until we are free.

I wonder if it’s too early to consider what comes next after achieving freedom from the system. What comes next after defunding the police, after healing from generations of trauma, after land rights are recognised? Will we be satisfied? If so, for how long?

Is satisfaction a brief state before the next crisis?


2. Law: the payment of a debt or fulfilment of an obligation or claim (Oxford Languages)

There is grim satisfaction after a compromise, after receiving compensation. You can receive what you want without the feeling of having won.

A dental surgeon once threatened to ban me from the medical practice he worked at after I sent a complaint about his rude and dismissive behaviour. The practice assured me that his threat was empty but suggested that I shouldn’t seek his treatment in the future. I never received a letter of apology. I wouldn’t necessarily feel elated if the letter of apology came, but I would breathe out a long-held breath. Maybe I would be at peace. Maybe by the time such a letter came, it would not mean anything anymore. 

I would be satisfied with an apology. If that dental surgeon sent me an apology letter with admissions of wrongdoing, a promise to reflect and a recognition that they have racial prejudices that they need to unravel, would I find it sincere? A common complaint is that an apology is not sincere. What will satisfy the wounded then, if not the satisfaction of an apology? What compensation is there for emotional and psychological trauma?



1. pleased or content with what has been experienced or received (Merriam-Webster)

When I want something, I tend to dream about it—the acceptance letter in my inbox, the crush who reciprocates—only to find that when the moment comes to fruition, anxiety quickly follows the brief high. 

Is it really satisfaction when anxiety quickly follows?

Some people live through dreams. I am one of them. Whether I imagine a new world or an ideal scenario where I am laughing and elated, I take pleasure in playing with what has not happened in this world. Sometimes I wonder if I am satisfied with only dreaming if dreaming itself is a conscious action that I can be satisfied with.

Then I remember that there are dreams I want to fulfill, dreams of liberation and healing beyond this paradigm. I write them down, a conscious decision to actualize them.

Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga is a writer of Rwandan background. She has short stories published in Djed Press, Underground Writers, StylusLit, and the 2018 Digital Writers Festival. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2018 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing and the 2018 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing. 


Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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