It hits when you least expect it.
After a major achievement or a longed-for acquisition, amid the routine tasks of an average day, or in the sleepless, pre-dawn darkness . . . The Big Question flickers into your consciousness like a whisper, then expands to a dull roar:
"Is that all there is?"
This question had been nagging each of the 14 people who attended an Open University session on "the psychology of satisfaction." Group members -- ranging in age from 24 to 49 -- included an advertising executive, travel agent, teacher, salesman and a microbiologist.
Puzzled, angry and frustrated by what they dubbed "life's dirtiest trick" and "the felling of being let down just when you expect a high," each person described the root of his or her ennui.
Amoung their confessions:
A 30-year-old Virginia businesswoman: "I loved graduate school and expected to see my name in neon lights when I finally got my masters degree. But instead I felt phfft -- nothing. I keep wondering what happened to the glow?"
Account executive Bud Matych, 49: "I was married 20 years, then divorced . . . and now the only real satisfaction I get is in giving satisfaction to others. But if no one notices my efforts, I feel awful and dissatisfied."
Retired fireman Bob Thompson, 42, of Silver Spring: "Seven years ago I started a program for kids. I thought if I got recognition from my peers and my name in thenewspaper I would be happy. But all that happened, and I'm not.
"When you get past 40, you realize you're going to die. I keep wondering, will I be ultimately satisfied with my life? Now I'm thinking of going on a vagabond trip around the world."
The "Is-That-All-There-Is Blues" confronts most people at some point in their lives, acknowledged co-leaders Andrew Wald and Mitch Margolis, both family therapists.
"It's often linked to our societal image of what people are supposed to have and do to feel satisfied," said Wald.
"If they've always thought a house, two cars and a condominium at the beach is what it's all about -- it may come as a shock to find that when they achieve it, the possessions alone don't bring happiness."
"Or a person may get overly concerned with fulfilling someone else's definition of satisfaction," added Margolis. "Someone who tries to fulfill a parent's or a boss's idea of what they should do to be happy, may wind up satisfying no one -- especially not themselves."
"You've got to think," said Wald, "about what satisfaction means to you."
Among definitions of satisfaction that participants came up with: "selfrecognition," "not being bored," "fame," "fulfilling a need or desire" and "loving and being loved."
People often thwart their own chances for satisfaction by keeping a "hidden agenda of something they wish they would have done," noted Margolis. "For example, I went to an omelet-making class and came away dissatisfied.
"I realized what was wrong when I admitted to myself that my hidden agenda was to meet someone -- not just to make scrambled eggs. Had I acknowledged this beforehand, I could have acted on it, and maybe walked away with a phone number instead of just recipe cards and dissatisfaction."
Among other pitfalls to satisfaction listed by Margolis and Wald:
Concentrating on the goal, and ignoring the process.
"Don't be like the person who goes through high school dreaming of college, goes through college and can't wait to go to grad school, goes to grad school and can't wait to get married, buy a house and have kids.
"If you don't enjoy what you're doing along the way, you're setting yourself up for a big letdown. Reaching a goal can be part of the satisfaction, but it shouldn't be everything."
Setting unrealistic expectations.
"As wonderful as it is to try and reach new heights, keep in mind that striving for an unreachable goal may be a setup for failure."
Expecting someone else to bring you satisfaction.
"If you feel dissatisfied, take the responsibility to do something about it."
Whishing things were different.
Realize when something can't be changed, and accept it.
Expecting to be satisfied at all times.
"Being dissatisfied is part of being human."
Continually rushing through life.
As participant Bob Thompson noted: "I think I've been so caught up with looking for goals and meaning that I forget to slow down and think about colors and how things smell and feel. And that may be what it's all about."