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May 8, 2021


Dissatisfaction seems hardwired to being human. Some days we are happy, other days we’re sad. Sometimes we are in the mood for adventure, and others we just want to grab a warm blanket and hot chocolate and binge-watch our favorite show. However, chronic dissatisfaction could end up making us so restless that we lose our sense of purpose.

What happens when we begin to lose interest in our jobs, in our hobbies, relationships and find ourselves in “a deep dark wood where the straight way (is) lost”? What does neuroscience tell us about that deep down feeling of never being able to feel grounded and having lost joy in what we do?

It is referred to as Wistfulness. Not depression. Not melancholy. Most people confuse that feeling that we can’t seem to quite find words for as a form of depression, but this would a direct conflation of the longing for a new purpose versus feeling like we have no purpose at all. Wistfulness keeps us restless. Wistfulness is that deep existential desire that lives beyond our current circumstances. We want more, but we don’t know why or even what it is. Many use wistfulness alongside the idea of nostalgia, which is a complete misunderstanding of the dynamic of presence and absence.

Although wistfulness can be understood as a form of remembrance for those romanticized moments in our childhood that we feel we have lost or can no longer get back — can also be the same exact phenomena in a retro-futuristic understanding of our current feelings and longing for something more than what we currently have in our lives. Deep down we know we are made for more, but still have yet to put our finger on it.

It is the spiritual cry of a CEO who has owned a successful company for 20 years who wants to give it up for something else, but that something else has yet to emerge on the screen of his imagination. The stereotyped domestic mother knows deep down she has more to offer the world, but is only able to fill her mind with sleepless nights. The father is convinced he could spend more time with his kids and wife, but is kept in the hamster wheel of never being fully present. These examples demonstrate these deep longings for something that isn’t there yet — an absence. We desire something that isn’t yet there, but we know should be.


Really, what we need is a nostalgia for the future. In psychology, we refer to this as prospection. It is the ability to develop the skill of simulation. When we lack this skill or do not give it enough room in our lives, we get locked into a feeling of never being satisfied with where we are. Keep in mind, this feeling of internal restlessness does not have to be perceived as a negative emotional experience. Sometimes, we need to take our emotions seriously and ask hard questions about why we feel like we no longer enjoy our jobs, our marriages, our goals, our bodies and etc. Awareness is a major leap forward towards understanding wistfulness. If we don’t listen to it, it could lead to depression and other mental health experiences.

Prospection is the ability to creatively imagine other possible futures. “This may include planning, prediction, hypothetical scenarios, teleological patterns, daydreaming, and evaluative assessment of possible future events.  This ability to represent possible futures fundamentally shapes human cognitive, affective, and motivational systems and yet remains an understudied field of research. Effects of prospection on current cognition, emotion, motivation, and behavior are also of interest. Prospection is a ubiquitous feature of the human mind.”

Somewhere along the way we get so habitual in our processes, justifying why we are we are that we forget that we have choice. We become so driven by goals like financial safety, kid rearing, hobby jumping and other things that we forget to imagine or plan for other futures that await our creative imaginary output. The mundane aspects of living certain aspects of our lives asphyxiate our imagination and begin to drown out our motivations to the point that we begin to believe that where we are in life is the only place we deserve to be.

The main point here is to see that life can get in the way of life. That the day-in and day-out so-called responsibilities of being a son, a mother, an aunt and the many other roles we play begin to snuff out the very fire of being alive and wanting more out of it. This is a major reason why we can’t seem to find satisfaction in what we’re currently doing — because, we know we’re meant for more.


Another way to think about this is to borrow an idea from economic theory. “In line with the expected utility theory (EUT), most economic and neuroeconomic models view decision-making as aimed at the maximization of expected utility.” What does this have to do with our lives and feeling a deep sense of purpose? In this theory, the argument states we know that deep down we’re not living up to our full potential. We know we are made for me, and our current lives feel like a lot less. We base our decisions on their outcomes. If we wake up one day to find we have amassed a large amount of wealth but feel no happier, than we would judge that period of our life as a ‘wash-out’.

In fact, we even have Hollywood movies that explore this very restlessness. The Family Man  explores the life of a man who seemingly has it all and ends up finding out that he missed the one thing he didn’t know he had been longing for — love. This might seem a bit trite and boring but it does demonstrate the longing desires we all go through when we experience this internal restlessness. Embedded within our culture is this fundamental confession that know to be human is to never be satisfied, and maybe that’s okay.

In Behavioral Science we refer to a particular bias that exposes the fact that we are driven by a desire for the status quo — this is one major reason why most don’t change their circumstances even when they feel this deep call out of their own current environment.

Our brains look at drastic sweeping changes as a form of attack – and prepare us for some great loss ahead of us. In fact, once it perceives we are making big changes it gives us a cocktail of neurotransmitters that sets our brain into the ‘fight or flight’ response — where we have to make a choice: Fight for what you want or retreat back into what you already know. If you do choose to fight, these changes have to be small, teleological and packed with meaning.

The question is: What are you going to choose?


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