Thoughts for the new year: Satisfaction vs. Enjoyment (and language learning)

By | December 31, 2019

I’ve been a fairly avid reader all of my life, but I’ve found that after a few months has passed I tend to remember only a small fraction of what I read––perhaps because of my reading speed. Or maybe it’s just how my mind works.

While a majority of my reading time has been devoted to fiction, there was a period when I read a bunch of self-help books. For whatever reason, my retention on those seems to be even less than fiction. So I’m happy to remember anything from a self-help book book I read years ago. Perhaps it’s better to say that I have integrated some of the ideas I read into my daily life and thought processes, but I don’t see them as specific pieces of knowledge that I learned from a specific book.

There was one book I read over a decade ago, and I only remember very vaguely what it was about. But the topic in itself was an important thing that still influences me to this day.

The book was about the difference between enjoyment and satisfaction. This may be something you don’t think about on a daily basis, but I feel that it’s good to understand the difference.

Enjoyment can take many forms, but for our purposes let’s make it include everything between raw physical pleasure (say, getting a massage) and mental enjoyment including playing a board game with a friend, the latter we could call informally “fun”. 

Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a more deep, meaningful emotion, that often connects to our longtime dreams, wants, or needs. It can involve us feeling that something was really worthwhile. One example of an experience that might be considered satisfying is receiving a promotion at work after two years of great effort.

Just like the various nutrients our body needs, I don’t think it’s reasonable to think in terms of only enjoyment or satisfaction. Instead, certain activities may have a mix of different types of enjoyment and satisfaction. And I don’t think it is logical to say one is better than the other; clearly, both of these feelings are important. In particular, because of how satisfaction can be linked to long-term effort, it seems difficult for us to have large doses of this on a daily basis.

There is surely value in thinking about daily life in terms of satisfaction and enjoyment, but my main purpose of this article is to apply this dichotomy to language studies. 

For example, watching an anime with English subtitles enabled would likely involve mostly enjoyment, whereas watching an anime for the first time without subtitles and picking up a few words would clearly give some satisfaction. In fact, I still remember the great satisfaction the first time I understood three Japanese words in close succession when watching an anime (it was during “Now and Then, Here and There”). But the more times you have an experience like that, the less satisfaction you get each time. 

Passing some level of the JLPT test would surely give a nice dose of satisfaction for most people. But there is a limited number of levels, and furthermore you can’t really guarantee that you’ll pass on the first try. That’s another reason to make sure you get a good dose of enjoyment and don’t over focus solely on satisfaction. 

It seems like the attrition rate of people giving up studying a foreign language––especially one as difficult as Japanese––is somewhat high. I would posit that one reason is a lack of enjoyment, but perhaps more importantly a lack of satisfaction. You can look at this in terms of positive feedback to keep you coming back to studying that language. 

I would suggest that all of you, especially those on the first few years of your foreign language study, think about what is satisfying about studying, practicing, and using whatever foreign language you have chosen. If you find yourself drawing a blank, consider trying new ways to study and use what you have learned in order to increase your satisfaction.

For example, I think we’ll all agree that in-person relationships are generally much more satisfying on many levels. So if you have been practicing Japanese with someone over Skype, instead spend some more time trying to find someone locally, or start saving up so you can actually go to Japan and practice there. If your focus is more learning to read Japanese, sharing what you have read through writing reviews and posting them on a blog or other web site can help you start rewarding conversations with other people about what you’re read. Reading in a vacuum, no matter how enjoyable the content is, can be hard to maintain over a long period of time.

On the other hand, you may discover you’ve been pushing yourself too hard to study a foreign language, with no significant satisfaction and no end in sight. A teacher I respect greatly once was asked by a pupil about quitting studying a certain subject. The teacher heard out the pupil’s reasons, and said we all need to make sure why we are doing a certain activity, as opposed to just going with the motions. At first, I was surprised that he didn’t simply try to push him to keep studying, but in retrospect I was impressed by the teacher’s level-headedness with dealing with this situation. By no means am I suggesting to just quit studying a foreign language, but I think it is healthy to occasionally reassess your goals and confirm how you feel about everything.

Let’s make 2020 a year about understanding our foreign language study processes and goals, and refine them so we make sure we are getting enough enjoyment and satisfaction from all the effort we are putting in.

Happy New Year and let’s make 2020 a great one!

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