Satisfaction: The Science of True Fulfillment

Satisfaction: The Science of True Fulfillment

By Gregory Berns


Satisfaction is not the same as happiness or pleasure.


Satisfaction comes from the interaction of dopamine and cortisol.


Our bodies release dopamine in response to novelty, and cortisol in response to stress.


Together, dopamine and cortisol increase the intensity of an experience. After a cortisol injection, the author reports that all experiences seem least until his cortisol level crashes and he collapses with exhaustion.


However, cortisol can be harmful. For example, when a situation is beyond your control, cortisol tends to be harmful. The key is that you feel that you have some control over the situation.


This means that satisfaction comes from experiencing novelty, with enough challenge to induce cortisol release, while still maintaining a sense of control. (Editor's note: This is very similar to the concept of flow, but provides some of the biochemical underpinnings for why the theory works).


You can experience happiness or pleasure without working for it, but you cannot experience satisfaction. Winning the lottery may make you happy, but you will not feel satisfied unless you use the money in some way that provides novelty and challenge.


As a side note, the author encourages people to share their experiences--it is the telling of the tale that helps cement the meaning of the satisfying experience.


This also helps explain the sushi problem: Even if you love sushi, eating it every day eventually causes its pleasures to pale. Saving it for special occasions and layering additional stimulation on top of it makes the meal more meaningful. For example, the reason we pair wine with food is because it heightens our senses of taste and smell (by dimming our sight and impairing cognition). The author experiences an amazing meal with an Argentinean gourmand, who pairs food with alcohol as well as poetry and mentally stimulating reading. The idea is to increase the challenge and stimulation in order to make a delicious meal into an extraordinary experience.


Some of the examples provided in the book illustrate this points above:


1) Solving crossword puzzles

2) Visiting an SM (S&M) club

3) Storytelling

4) Competing in an ultra-marathon

5) Sex and Marriage



Crosswords and other puzzles combine novelty and challenge in spades. Participants derive intense satisfaction from the "aha" moments where things fall together, as well as the challenge of completing the task. Crosswords which are too easy are boring; crosswords which are too hard are frustrating. The trick is finding the right level of challenge. Other factors like humor also play a role. The best humor is novel and challenging--and eminently satisfying when you "get it."



(Editors note: I can just imagine the chortling glee of the agent when the author, a respectable Emory professor, mentioned that he'd be visiting an S&M club as part of his research for the book. Probably boosted the advance $10K right there.)

Oddly enough, S&M is also a strong provider of satisfaction. The experience is certainly novel and challenging (physically as well as mentally). This section of the book illustrates the thin line between pain and pleasure, and that pain can contribute to satisfaction, as part of the challenge.


It's also important to note the sacredness of the contract between dominant and submissive. It is this contract which places what occurs under the control of both dom and sub. Simply being tied up and tortured is unlikely to bring satisfaction. However, agreeing to be tied up and tortured so that you can experience the challenge and test yourself makes the activity intentional and consensual. (Editor's note: Just the same, I think I'll pass.)


As a sidebar, the author undergoes the testing of one of his academic colleagues, who uses warm and cold water to illustrate that the relief from pain is pleasurable. He is chilled by cold water, and discovers the incredible feeling of pleasure when finally warmed again.



At one point, the author goes to visit Iceland, cold and inhospitable environment which happens to have one of the world's happiest populations. Three factors present themselves to explain this. One, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the author notes the incredibly beauty of the female population. It turns out that the old joke about Vikings carrying off all the hot chicks from the British Isles is actually true. Genetic testing of the mitochondria shows that Icelandic women are almost all descended from Celtic stock. Irish blood runs deep in the Icelandic population.


The second factor is the combination of the incredible beauty of the land, as well as its challenges. The author himself goes on a difficult trek to visit the summit of Iceland's major volcano (the site chronicled in Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth") and experiences the joy and fulfillment of the incredible view from the top.


The final factor lies in the storytelling. The population is very interested in and respectful of storytelling. Even the roads of Iceland are carefully laid out to avoid disturbing the elves and trolls that are reputed to live in certain rocks and areas. Storytelling helps bring meaning to events and actions, and is an integral part of satisfaction.



The author examines the case of ultra-marathon runners. Running 100 challenging miles of mountain trail in less than 24 hours is an incredibly stressful activity. Yet instead of aging its participants, ultra-marathoning helps keep them fit and young. There are a number of scientific and biochemical reasons for this.


A) Running an ultra-marathon results in massive releases of cortisol. Tests showed that runners had levels of cortisol approximately 10-20 times normal during and after the race. This cortisol helps heighten the senses and create the so-called "runner's high." Runner's high is not like getting high on opiates or marijuana; the cortisol causes runners to experience insights and epiphanies (and sometimes even to hallucinate). It is more similar to the kinds of mind-expanding experiences provided by LSD, peyote, and mescaline, but without the harmful and/or out-of-control side effects.


B) Running an ultra-marathon requires burning fat, which results in the production and use of ketones for energy. The amount of energy consumed by an ultra-marathon far exceeds the amount a person can store in glucose and glycogen. This is why ultra-marathoners are not the twig-thin beanpoles of marathon runners (who can just make it all the way to the finish line on glycogen). Instead, they look like normal people, because they need enough fat reserves to power them through the finish line.


Fat burning results in ketones, which are then metabolized. What is interesting is that the brain prefers ketones to its normal energy source of glucose. Our bodies always prioritize the brain; if there isn't enough glucose to go around, the brain gets all it needs and the rest of the body has to make do. But when ketones are available, the brain prefers them to glucose (this was even demonstrated in controlled lab conditions by injecting volunteers with ketones). These ketones rev up the brain and improve its functioning.


C) Running an ultra-marathon exposes you to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation impairs functioning, and can kill if kept up for too long, but helps push the brain into an altered state. This, in combination with the cortisol, the ketones, and the dopamine released by running a challenging trail, produce a truly satisfying experience.



The author recaps the different reproductive motivations of men and women, and notes things such as the Coolidge effect (male mammals will eventually stop mating with one female, but if presented with a new female in estrus, will immediately jump back into the fray with more ejaculations) and the impact of the female orgasm on fertility (it turns out that fertility nosedives right after ovulation, so the ability of orgasm to move the sperm into position in advance of ovulation is critical; orgasm can be seen as a measure of how fit the woman considers the man to be a father and mate...this is why factors like love and feeling safe and protected can increase the probability of orgasm).


This, however, is all preamble to considering the dilemma of marriage. If humans crave novelty and different partners, how do we reconcile these urges with the need to be monogamous and faithful?


Several interesting things of note: Contrary to popular belief, married people report greater satisfaction with their sex lives than single people. This disparity is so great that married people who have less sex than single people are still generally more satisfied with their sex lives. The second fact is that women who are married report a higher incidence of orgasm than single women. This may have to do with better technique, developed over time, or may reflect the biological mechanism described above to help the reproductive process.


Nonetheless, the author acknowledges the reality of things like the seven-year itch, noting the strain that the book had placed on his own marriage. His wife had decided to stay home to take care of the kids. Meanwhile, her husband was jetting off to places like Iceland, Colorado, and visiting crossword puzzle the name of work. He felt that they were in a rut, largely because they took each other for granted.


What ends up happening is that the author and his wife decided to confront the issue head-on, using the concept of the "sexual crucible." That is, that the sexual component of a relationship is an important testing ground.


Together, they commit to a session of revealing their hidden thoughts and feelings, and being more open with each other. The author admits that he's thought about having sex with other people, and details some of his more exotic fantasies (Editor's note: He did seem quite fascinated by the S&M world, but he coyly does not share his true fantasies). His wife does the same, and details her (apparently more kinky) fantasies as well. But rather than destroying their marriage (as his wife fears--she thinks they may be on the track for a divorce), the added uncertainty about the other, as well as seeing the other as a more darkly sexual being, returns the zest to their sex life, and their marriage is stronger for it. Editor's note: Yeah, sounds great, but I'm not sure the ending is always this happy. What if the other person tells you to go ahead and sleep with others, and he/she plans to do the same?


Nonetheless, this is an important insight. The answer to marital boredom is not necessarily working one's way through the Kama Sutra (Editor's note: That being said, this still seems like a pretty good idea for other reasons) but rather recalling that both parties have choice and control over their sexual participation in the marriage. The resulting uncertainty and challenge can bring the dopamine and cortisol (as well as the satisfaction) back into the marriage.


This book is recommended, but not highly recommended.