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Many adults are dissatisfied with life. Kansas City-area experts say gratitude and connection help

A white board says "For all to be thriving! (Not just surviving)."
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Servivce
Psychologists suggest practices of gratefulness, accompanied by mindfulness of a spectrum of emotions and focus on strengthening relationships, can help alleviate growing concerns around life satisfaction.

Several reports on life satisfaction show a growing number of people dissatisfied with life. Psychologists from St. Luke's and the University of Kansas say individualized approaches can lead to more fulfilled lives.

In 2021, 4.8% of adults said they were dissatisfied with life, according to a new report released earlier this month that examined how people across different age, sex, race and family income perceive their lives.

The report shows adults with a family income less than 200% of the federal poverty level — which is $30,000 for a family of four — were more likely to be dissatisfied or very dissatisfied compared to adults above that line. In addition, men were more likely to be dissatisfied than women and adults aged 45 to 64 more so than those younger or older.

Those born in the United States were more likely to be dissatisfied than those born outside the country.

Life satisfaction can often be subjective and multifaceted, based on questions like: How are my relationships with family, friends and work? Am I taking care of my health and meeting my goals?

Sometimes people use happiness to define life satisfaction, but Kadie Harry, a licensed psychologist for Saint Luke’s Health System, says happiness and life satisfaction are both pieces of subjective well-being — thinking and feeling that one's life is going well, not badly. She said the pursuit of happiness to improve overall well-being can be well-intentioned but sometimes misguided.

“In a lot of self-help literature, the pursuit of happiness is the absence of negative emotions. I need to feel happy, I need to worry less and feel less stressed,” Harry said. “Although this is well-intentioned — and of course sounds good, right? Who would argue with, I wanna feel more positive of emotions — this is an unrealistic goal. We can't cherry-pick emotions.”

2021 was the first year this question about life satisfaction was included in the National Health Interview Survey. Life satisfaction is an indicator of overall health and well-being, so the survey hopes to track trends in life satisfaction from the 2021 baseline to help document progress toward the Healthy People 2030 goals of improving overall well-being and reducing disparities in well-being.

But it isn't the only report tracking well-being. The World Happiness Report finds that a separate measure of overall life satisfaction took a 6% plunge in the United States between 2007 and 2018.

The report authors suggest that at a societal level, the population only experiences high levels of overall life satisfaction if people are pro-social, healthy and prosperous.

“To see why this is true, we have only to consider how far our own life satisfaction depends on the behavior and attitudes of others,” the report authors wrote. “So to have a society with high average life satisfaction, we need a society with virtuous citizens and with supportive institutions. At the level of society, the two terms go hand-in-hand. Effective institutions support character development; virtuous citizens promote effective institutions.”

On an individual level, finding or improving life satisfaction might overlap with many subjective domains — physical health, improving social engagement and quality, increasing access to economic resources or changing self-perceptions.

At Saint Luke's, Harry works primarily with oncology patients to navigate how they perceive themselves. She said helping them show up for themselves and their loved ones in a way that feels good even under such a challenging physical situation requires openness to all emotions.

“There's one type of therapy, and one that I commonly use, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT),” Harry said. “It doesn't focus on how you worry less, how you feel happier, but more on the ability to be present, to feel and accept a wide range of emotions in service of your values. These values are defined as the qualities of the desired actions that give our life meaning — your heart's deepest desires for how you want to treat yourself and others.”

If people want to do some of the deeper work to improve their satisfaction, they'd likely need a mental health professional, Harry said.

Steve Ilardi, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, has spent the past 20 years exploring the emerging area of lifestyle medicine. This is the idea that the way people live, what they do with their bodies, the habits they pick up and time spent indoors or outdoors impacts not just physical but psychological well-being.

Through what he calls Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, or TLC, Ilardi identifies modifiable lifestyle factors like movement, diet, rest and relaxation, connection and belonging. By improving those factors, he said, people can serve overall well-being.

For those who aren’t feeling satisfied with life, Ilardi said the first step is to invest more time and energy into their relationships, strengthening existing connections and building new ones.

“Coming out of the pandemic, many people are feeling particularly disconnected. They've gotten into the habit of just spending extraordinary amounts of time by themselves, maybe on a screen, feeling that very sort of narrow connection with others through text,” he said. “But it's just not the same as the broadband sensory experience of being physically present in real life with other people.”

Ilardi added building a practice of gratitude can also go a long way, timely for Thanksgiving.

“It is always possible at any moment in time for any person, no matter what their circumstances, to complain and to be dissatisfied with some things that either objectively or subjectively feel like they could be a lot better,” Ilardi said. “Arguably for anyone, regardless of their circumstances, there are things that they can be genuinely grateful for.”

Writing a few things down daily and being as specific as possible — maybe noting a few things in the past 24 hours —can go a long way, he said.

Other areas people can do on their own to improve well-being include building habits of healthy sleep, spending time outdoors —especially in the first hour or so of being awake — and setting screen time limits, especially with social media.

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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