How to Leverage It for Greater Happiness

Question: What’s better for your business than a satisfied customer?

Answer: A dissatisfied customer.

No, I’m not crazy. Just hear me out. Once I’m done you’ll be shouting “Amen, brother!” and buzzing with new ideas for creating happier customers.

As a kid, I loved The Twilight Zone. It’s a show that subverted expectations, exposed unexamined beliefs and created unforgettable television. Plus, it felt sorta naughty, so I stealth-watched it as often as possible.

It was from The Twilight Zone that I developed my taste for paradox. So, here for your consideration, (as Rod Serling would say), is a Twilight Zone-worthy paradox:

  • Satisfied customers are not happy
  • Happy customers are not satisfied


That’s ok. All shall be revealed in due time. I’ll explain this paradox – and how you can leverage it – to create rabidly happy (as opposed to merely satisfied) customers.

Brain Chemistry for Dummies, (Marketing Edition)

It’s all about brain chemistry.

From neurochemistry, we learn:

  • The brain chemicals that create feelings of satisfaction are different from the brain chemicals that create feelings of happiness
  • Those two different chemicals don’t work at the same time
  • Dissatisfaction is an entirely different thing from unhappiness

What we call “happiness” and “satisfaction” are the products of two different neurochemicals: dopamine on the one hand, serotonin on the other.

When we see ourselves heading in the right direction to obtain something we want, then our brains reward us with dopamine. Offer the chance to resolve a painful problem, and dopamine makes us feel good about that possibility.

Dopamine’s pleasure is intense; it feels really good. The intensity of the pleasure motivates us to keep pursuing our goal, even when it’s difficult.

(As it turns out, cocaine also triggers dopamine production. That’s why cocaine is so hard to quit.)

However, once we reach our goal, our brain shuts off the dopamine supply and replaces it with serotonin. Serotonin feels… well, serotonin feels nice. But nobody ever robbed a liquor store to feed a serotonin habit.

In neurochemical terms, serotonin mediates “satisfaction” and dopamine mediates “happiness.”

Dopamine feelings are intense, long-lasting, an absolute delight. Serotonin feelings – by way of contrast – are short-lived and not at all intense. Our brains are built so that we can experience one or the other, but not both at the same time.

In other words:

The pleasure of Desire is both stronger and longer-lived than the pleasure of Possession. 

Want an example? Consider the chronic shopper. We all know someone who’s always buying new clothes or new shoes or home décor or new tools. They give far more attention to the next purchase than to the last. Why? Because the hunt is far more fun than the purchase.

Possession is the Enemy of Desire

You want wildly happy customers beating down your door? You want people singing your praises to the moon and proclaiming your greatness to the masses?

Then bathe their brains with lots of dopamine and just a little serotonin.

It’s not just safe to create dissatisfaction, it’s essential. How do you create dissatisfaction? You stoke the pain of longing and add the hope of resolution. This is the recipe for the elixir of happiness.

Season with a touch of satisfaction now and then, but carefully. Satisfaction in a customer is like salt on a steak: too much ruins it.

Here’s an example:

Clothing subscription companies – Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Box-of-Style, – thrive on this technique. My favorite pipe tobacco company has me hooked on that feeling as well. (I’m looking at you, Pipes and

Their customers live in a state of constant dissatisfaction. Dissatisfied people lack the pleasant reward of serotonin. But we, (yes it affects me), bask in the glow of dopamine anticipation.

As long as you keep those intense dopamine hits coming, your prospects and customers will technically be “more happy” than people who experience mere satisfaction.

The pleasure of serotonin fades quickly, like fizz from forgotten champagne. The pleasure of dopamine lingers far longer, like the finish of a fine scotch whisky.

So how can you put this newfound knowledge to work?

The Positive Benefit of Negative Feelings

The mere presence of negative emotion does not imply the absence of positive emotion. Brain research has shown that negative emotions and positive emotions run on entirely different neural circuitry.

In other words, we humans are wired to experience both positive and negative emotions at the exact same time. (Parents of energetic toddlers experience this paradox all the time.)

Negative emotion is not your enemy; your real enemy is weak positive emotions.

For decades, the “experts” have warned us to avoid stirring up negative emotions. “Don’t use negative words! Don’t stir up negative emotions!”

In response, inexperienced marketers carefully avoid stirring up any sort of negative feelings.

As usual, the “experts” are wrong.

The entire fashion industry would turn to dust if shoppers were happy with the styles already in their closet. The industry swings on the twin hinges of dissatisfaction with the last purchase and unrequited desire for the next.

Harness the Dopamine Paradox

Desire is a form of suffering. It’s weird, a pleasurable pain. In fact, the stronger the desire, the stronger the “pain.”

However, the instant desire is satisfied, the throbbing pleasure of desire gives way to the milquetoast pleasure of possession. Serotonin replaces dopamine.

This is one reason why athletic teams that win a championship seldom repeat the following year: serotonin lacks the motivating power of dopamine.

So, do your audience a favor: grant them the gift of that most pleasurable negative emotion: unfulfilled desire.

So be fearless as you ratchet up the pain and hunger of dissatisfied longing. And remember, (this is vital), always give your audience with hope. That’s the key that unlocks the magic of dopamine.

This sequence of emotions – dissatisfaction, longing, desire, hope – feels as good as a snort of cocaine. And it’s every bit as addictive.

Old-school marketing guys have an acronym: “PAS.” It stands for Pain-Amplification-Solution. They knew what worked, even though they didn’t know exactly why.

Now you know exactly why.

Can I get an “Amen”?