Can’t get no satisfaction? Try, for a happier New Year

CPX Associate Emma Wilkins reflects on New Year's Resolutions and contentment.

The older I get, the less inclined I am to make New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps I’ve developed an unconscious superstition that turning a personal goal into a New Year’s resolution means I’m less likely to achieve it. After all, we joke about breaking them even as we’re making them.

The classic health goals, for example, are usually either too vague—to eat healthier and exercise more—or too prescriptive—to cut out carbs and exercise for two hours a day. There’s a disconnect between that kind of life and the one we are actually living—with time restraints that make menu planning and grocery shopping haphazard and rushed; with social occasions that practically necessitate the consumption of alcohol, cheese and cake; with fussy children who will only tolerate so much green on their plates.

The solution seems simple: to make our resolutions less ambitious and more practical; to make them compatible with the lives we are actually living. So why don’t we? Why don’t we stop dreaming big, and commit to achievable goals instead? Could it be that we’d rather dream big? That wanting is the point?

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the protagonist describes his bride’s sister, whom he has feelings for, as “a woman who has never been satisfied”. He tells her: “You’re like me. I’m never satisfied”—as if it is a virtue.

It reminds me of a character in the American writer Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers. The restless protagonist, Nadia, reflects on how marriage has left her old flame Luke “satisfied”:

During long lulls in the afternoon, she thought about him, how peaceful he seemed. This had always frightened her about marriage: how satisfied married people seemed, how unable they were to ask for more.

In fact, he’s not content at all, but her perception of contentment is telling:

She couldn’t imagine feeling satisfied. She was always searching for the right challenge, the next job, the next city. In law school, she’d become prickly and analytical, gaining a sharpness while Luke has rounded and filled. She felt hungry all the time—always wanting, needing more—but Luke had pushed away from the table already, patting his full stomach.

It strikes me as strange yet familiar: that contentment might be something to be feared or even despised rather than desired; that dissatisfaction might be cast as a virtue. It’s like the assumption that people who choose steady commitment over “playing the field” are somehow missing out, when the opposite could well be the case. It makes me wonder whether words like “satisfied” and “content” have begun to carry connotations that contradict their very meaning.

Could this explain our tendency to make New Year’s resolutions a step too ambitious? Maybe we joke about breaking them, even as we’re making them, because we expect to: they’re an expression of desire, not intent. Perhaps, deep in our subconscious, we’ve started to value wanting, and to shun satisfaction.

Ads encourage us to throw money at New Year’s resolutions, but not to keep them.

I’m sure this wasn’t always the case. One of the classic ancient texts on contentment comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, in a letter written to the Philippian church. Paul, who never comes across as lazy or settled—whose dramatic conversion was the original “road-to-Damascus moment” and who, from that day forward, was a man on a mission—claims to have learned the secret of contentment in all circumstances. It’s clear he isn’t expecting the word to carry negative baggage: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty,” he writes. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

I wonder whether part of the reason contentment is sometimes treated with contempt is that companies depend on, and marketers exploit (and even spiritualise) dissatisfaction. We can end up so consumed with wanting—more money, more things, more experiences, more “likes”—that we start despising the kind of satisfaction Paul describes. We’re continually upgrading, discarding and replacing technology that’s not designed to last. Ads encourage us to throw money at New Year’s resolutions, but not to keep them.

I suspect these trends are influencing the lives we live and the stories we tell; the promises we make, and break, more than we realise.

If I betray a loving spouse, I can cast myself as a restless romantic … or a selfish coward. What’s it to be? Did I have an affair or did I cheat? Is dissatisfaction a virtue, or a vice? Should contentment be sought, or scorned?

Our assumptions are coded into the words we use, and how we use them. The choice is ours: we can use words to hide the truth, or tell it. We can make resolutions we expect to break, or intend to keep. We can scorn contentment, or we can esteem it. Our New Year’s resolutions are one measure of our desire for satisfaction – or else our desire to keep on desiring.

Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer, and an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia.