Satisfaction vs. Happiness

After she manages to sneak past his bodyguard, Ariadne Oliver catches her old detective-friend Hercule Poirot red-handed: one paw in the pastry box, the other in the sugar jar — even if the latter is only for his coffee. “Cakes for cases,” she critiques his retirement pastime. “Even picked Venice to hide in. A gorgeous relic, slowly sinking into the sea, just like your mind without a challenge.”

“I am much satisfied,” Poirot tries to assure his friend who, like many others trying to get around Vitale, has undoubtedly arrived with a supposedly sweet nut of a case for him to crack. Of course, Oliver has another idea: “This is happiness, not satisfaction,” she corrects him. “A writer knows the difference.”

As viewers of A Haunting in Venice, we immediately, instinctively know that what Ariadne Oliver says is true: Finding the time to watch a movie makes us happy, but only if it’s a good one will we also feel satisfied when it’s over. Likewise, a case-less Sherlock Holmes will soon turn his apartment into a shooting gallery, for his mind “rebels at stagnation.” Happy? Perhaps. But not satisfied.

Oliver never clarifies how specifically the difference manifests itself in her work, but as a fellow ink-slinger, I have several inklings. When I write a clever-sounding paragraph, I am happy. Satisfaction, however, only comes after I’ve realized it is too bombastic, verbose, or distraction-laden mere minutes later — and then fixed those mistakes. Happiness is pressing “Publish.” Satisfaction is reading an email that says, “This post made my day.” One is the result of relief, the other of resilience.

Relief can come from many places. Often, these places lie outside of us. Happiness can be accidental. A free piece of chocolate. A deadline that gets pushed back. Resilience, however, must come from the inside. Satisfaction means delivering ourselves by ourselves, to ourselves, and often from ourselves. It’s the act of doing the right thing that sets us free — and no amount of macarons can beat that feeling.

It’s good to feel happy from time to time, but it’s satisfaction that we can’t live without — and after he finishes his sugar-laden breakfast, even the world’s greatest detective must admit: His friend arrived at just the right time to put some life back into his life.