Is there an ideal level of discontentment/unhappiness

So it seems that w/o discontentment, fear, shame, unhappiness, pain, greed, etc a lot of things would not get done.

If you eliminated all these negative emotions, our motive to do medical research, to grow the economy, to protect the environment, to fight for human/civil rights, etc. would pretty much go away.

But too much of these emotions cause problems too. Apathy, paralysis, misery, short sightedness, regretful actions.

So how do you know how much fear of pain and death it takes to make people want to do medical research, but not so much that they become suicidal wrecks instead of scientists?

If people weren’t discontent and angry with being screwed over, you’d never see pushbacks against government abuse and corporate abuse. However too much discontentment just makes people cynical and withdrawn.

Is there an ideal level of negativity where people get motivated, but not too much that it paralyzes them and makes the miserable or counterproductive?

Or is it more the existence of meaningful avenues to act on these negative emotions to change situations more than the intensity of the emotions that matters?

I was thinking it is similar to unemployment. An unemployment rate that is too low might prevent businesses from changing around or letting new technologies come in and change old industries. But too much unemployment just makes people depressed and miserable. So you need a middle ground.

What is the middle ground between negativity that incites constructive pushback against abuse vs negativity that just destroys the individual experiencing the unpleasant situation?

The ideal level is the precise amount that is naturally generated by a rational and empathic* awareness of the current lapses of medical research, economy size, environmental protection, and human/civil rights. (And the like.) Problems that need solutions generate stress on their own, comparable (arguably) with the need to fix them*.

  • Presuming empathy for strangers, if it’s societal problems we’re dealing with.

Yeah, but we aren’t near that. We seem to be prone to being oblivious or miserable in our personal lives and collective lives.
"Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”-Aristotle

Nobody has a single “level of discontentment or unhappiness”. A person can be extremely happy and at the same time fully aware of all the injustice and destruction in the world and able to act to combat it. Conversely, a person can be miserable and at the same time not care about any large issues like human rights or the environment. Happiness is an interior mental state, not something determined by measuring exterior variables.

Says who, who’s “we”, and what’s your point?

I’m unhappy with the way this thread is turning out…

Well, I guess that means you should be doing something about it, right?

Per the thesis of the OP anyway…

I’m unhappy with how this thread is turning out as well. I’ve spent some time thinking of issues in a similar fashion to the OP, and I was hoping to read more and more varied responses to this thread.

In many ways, at least from my perspective on society, there’s not enough carrot, and too much whip. There are so many areas where the problems seem intractable, or are at least beyond the resources of any individual, to address them effectively. Even in areas where we, as a group, have the technology and the understanding to address a particular issue, the issues are politicized to a degree where most of the energy and dollars are spent fighting amongst ourselves rather than solving problems. We wind up disenfranchised and apathetic.

But maybe there’s plenty of carrot. Maybe its a matter of there being a sufficient amount of contentment for many people in first-world nations. We would rather spend our time watching reality shows or playing video games or other such diversions than we care to strive to fight the good fight. We can reward ourselves and close off our awareness of the problems of the day. We wind up disenfranchised and apathetic.

Take a step back from the question, however, and we see that it is somewhat superstitious or magical in a sense. Wondering what is the proper balance between adversity and contentment to provide for optimum motivation seems to presume that there’s something that can be done about it, as if the Matrix is a system we can tweak like a game. Players not motivated enough? Increase the experience or the drops gotten from the mobs.

But society, the world we live in, is what it is, and can’t be adjusted like that (unless I missed the option for Easy Mode).

Which leaves us with the option referred to in the OP, which is to look at the existence of meaningful avenues to effect change, to solve problems, to make improvements on the systems we can affect. My own sense is that we need to create more such avenues, or at least to somehow promote the avenues that exist (or could exist) so that more people have access to them. There is a great deal of cynicism and apathy that could be alleviated if more people felt empowered to affect meaningful change.

Well, if we have general agreement that the thread is not going the way it should, we’ve already gotten farther than some causes get. But that just brings us back to the point I tried to make before, that there’s no linear scale of “discontentment and unhappiness”. In my first post, I pointed out that there’s no relationship between a person’s happiness and how they feel on any issue. Even if we limit ourselves to one issue, however, it’s still a lot more complicated than the OP acknowledges.

Consider the example of protecting the environment. To get any progress on that issue, you have to have people agreeing on a number of things. First you have to agree that the environment is worth protecting, as in that clean air, clean water, pristine lands, protection for endangered species, and so forth, are worthwhile things to have. Then you have to agree that there are big environmental problems that are worth tackling, that there’s enough crap in the air and water and enough land being destroyed, and so on. Then you have to agree on the costs and benefits of tackling it, in other words that putting restrictions on dumping in the water are worth whatever cost is incurred. And then you have to agree that the program is doable, that there is actually a chance of getting the federal government to pass the rules that you want without lobbyists reducing them to meaninglessness.

So in sum, you’re contending on many different levels in any one issue.

It appears we are wired to be discontented. I’ve seen studies showing that almost everyone thinks that the right amount to have is just a bit more than they currently have. It appears that once you actually have enough, your discontentment turns to wishing to do more. We move from internally generated discontentment to externally generated discontentment.

My discontentment I don’t mean unhappiness, just dissatisfaction with the status quo. Happiness seems to be not very connected to external conditions, but internal ones.

I’d say the optimal level is just enough to stimulate you to do something to improve yourself and the world, and not enough to be too depressed to do anything. Which is more or less what begbert2 said.

The “Serenity Prayer” is one of the best formulations I’ve seen for how to deal with the world:


When I get fed up with negativity I look inside of me and change the mood. You have the power to change your mood or the mood of others.

Today my son calls me and says his bank charged him 39 dollars for not having anything in his savings account. It is unfair that no one told him he had to keep a minimum balance and he is out 39 bucks. He said, Mom I feel like flying a plane into that bank. I said you better not I would miss you too much… I said to him, Ry lets not talk problems, lets talk solutions. He says, All banks are just greedy institutions that want to steal from the working man. I say, Correction, they steal from both the rich and the poor equally. What do you want to do about it? He says, I’ll go down tomorrow and close out the savings because it is not free, I really don’t want a savings with a fee. I said that sounds great and how about asking for your 39 dollars back? Ry says, They will never give it back. I say how do you know if you don’t ask they may surprise you? He says, Yes I don’t have anything to lose. Thanks Mom.

I think we have it in ourselves if we look deeply enough to overcome anything by following spiritual principals. I know how you feel Wesley because I feel that powerlessness too. I counter it with what can I do to change this? If nothing can be done I let it go and if something can be done I do it and pray for Gods help. Some things like corporate greed seem impossible and negative but because I am powerless over them I accept it. Acceptance doesn’t mean approval! Not by any means, but by accepting it I can go about my day peacefully and not negative.

Acceptance Prayer- This helps me a lot…

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation ~ some fact of my life ~ unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.

Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober, unless I accept life completely on life’s terms. I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes

From The Big Book of AA, pg.449

If ambition doesn’t hurt, you don’t have it.

The ideal level of unhappiness is zero. The only reason that people do medical research, grow the economy, protect the environment, & fight for human rights is out of the belief that these things will improve someone’s happiness. If everyone is already completely happy, there’s no need to do those things.

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain."

(Spoken by Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet after a woman asked him to speak of Joy and Sorrow.)

Depends on your definition. They also do them to protect people from various forms of unhappiness (terror, loss, humiliation, deprivation, pain, etc).

Sure, but that still implies that the ideal level of unhappiness is none.

Unless you believe that medical research, etc has a purpose independent of improving people’s emotions, then maybe it would make sense to say that it would be useful to have a level of negative emotions > 0 in order to achieve that purpose. But I can’t imagine what that purpose would be.