There’s around six things that motivate us through life.
We seek physical pleasure. Sex, food, music and dance, or anything that gives a bodilly sense of intense pleasure. We’re wired for it in obvious and direct ways. What’s remarkable about pleasure is marginalized it is in our society. We build the world around us but we don’t build it for pleasure. In your city you might find pleasure in a brothel or a spa, or in a nightclub that’s devoted to adult pleasure. These are seen as indulgences, at best. You might find some dilute, socially acceptable pleasure in a great restaurant, in music, or at the gym.
For a pleasure-seeking species we’re doing remarkably little to create and share pleasure. Our cities, even magnificent ones, are architected as if to drive pleasure out of our waking minds and to confine it to risky, marginalized zones. People who seek sexual pleasure are ridiculed or feared. Those who take pleasure directly through drugs are pitied and the activity is proscribed. Faced with a pleasure-giving technology such as drugs or porn, we ignore it or try to regulate it away, rather than try to improve it and take out the risks as we do with all our other technologies.
We have a “stop at zero” attitude to pleasure. The opposite of pleasure is discomfort, and we’re good at recognizing when people fall there and helping them back out of it. Our homes, foods, and many other things are set up to mitigate discomfort. Medicine is quick to address discomfort with care or drugs. But the acceptable limit is to bring the person back to a state of neutrality. If anyone wants to rise further, into pleasure, they’re labeled an abuser and quickly stopped, or left to fend for themselves.
Empathy is caring for other people. When they’re happy you feel good for them. When they’re poorly you feel their pain. We’re physically wired for empathy, just as we are for pleasure. There are specific neurons in our brains that fire according to experiences that we observe others having. What’s socially constructed is to what extent we value or inhibit this natural sense.
We evolved in small bands of people who felt empathy towards each other. Our ancestors also felt empathy towards the people in competing bands and, in order to overcome this and be able to kill them, invented empathy suppression techiques such as military discipline or distancing themselves using face paint or masks. In modern times, our approach to empathy is a mess. We’re not sure if we should feel empathy towards our kin and neighbors, or towards all people. We’re faced with random appeals to empathy towards some distant victims of disaster, while distancing ourselves from ordinary misery on our doorstep. Most of us can’t balance empathy with economic competition.
As with pleasure, we have a “stop at zero” attitude to empathy. When people are miserable we feel for them, if we do, but when they’re elated we don’t share their happiness. At best, we extend positive empathy only to our kids. This makes us tired of empathy as a whole. It’s always about sharing in misery or bad news and never a positive celebration of human existence.
Importance is knowing that we matter to someone. It’s the feeling that we’re useful in the world, and that other people care about us. Unlike empathy, importance is socially constructed. We’re important because of our social relationships. It’s down to what we do for others, and what we share with them.
In the modern world we struggle to find our importance. Social networks based on proximity, such as the village, the extended family, or even the workplace, are dismantled. Now we have to find our audience and earn our importance with people all over the world. Artists and innovators have the fortune to do that through their work. Some people are committed enough to volunteer or fight for something important. The rest of us have to do it through blogging, opening up our life, or authoring some useful fragment of the information commons. We rarely meet the people that we’re important to.
The only assured way to earn importance with someone, albeit briefly, is to have kids. Our kids are specially connected to us. For all other relationships everyone can reach everyone else, so we give each other formidable competition. As easy as it is to find what you’re after in our connected culture, it’s hard to say something original or important. This matters because if we lose our importance we die. You can go to any old people’s home to see what happens to us when we’re no longer needed.
Autonomy and Purpose
Autonomy is living your life the way you want to live your life. Freedom, if you like, but with the conditions you need to realise it. Being allowed to choose your lifestyle at your own risk is freedom. Having the security and opportunity to achieve it is autonomy. In the West we profess to value autonomy, but usually we see this as limited to the freedom part. A few fortunate people are able to go for it and succeed. Eastern societies allow less freedom, emphasizing empathy instead.
Purpose is having a story about your life. It’s being able to say what you’re about. We crave purpose almost like nothing else. Our desire for purpose is why we’re so captivated by fiction. We want to see the stories of others, and make parallels to our own. Almost all of our fictional stories are stories of redemption. Tragedies are stories of a fall, where redemption is essentially by death. We have a few elating stories of a rise to grace. Most stories are about a journey in both directions, first a fall into danger or evil and then a recovery or redemption.
When we lived in small groups we each had stories that were straightforward and unique within a generation of the group. Now we’re bombarded with the stories of real life and fiction from the whole planet, while being crushed by an economy that wants compliant efficiency, not our individual stories. Our life stories are either stories of a journey, or stories of construction. People whom we call interesting have stories of a journey. They’ve had experiences or been through things. The majority have stories of constructions. We’ve invested in something, which grew bigger and better. Most people try to live these stories through their work, their volunteering, or their kids.
For an individualist society, autonomy is the “below zero” part of purpose. You have to be able to live your own life before you can have your story. In other societies that is not so. You can make your story part of a story that is shared, and thus transcedental. Religions and nations are archaic forms of shared, transcendental stories, and they’re ill suited to our global future. We need better shared stories for humanity. Our great story of today, the economy, is uninspiring. It needs to be broken up into smaller stories, or be a global story about quality of life, rather than wealth.
Flow and Mastery
Flow is to be fully engaged in something just inside the limits of your ability. You are challenged, and the risk of failure is real, but you succeed and grow in the process. Flow seems to give a physical level of satisfaction. In a positive setting this is experienced in sports and the performing arts. It can also drive the single minded pursuit of money, or a military win. Mastery is being accomplished at something, preferably something that other people value or at least respect. Flow is active, while mastery is a state that you attain.
Flow and mastery are rare today. Mostly, our jobs are well within our abilities and they’re very static compared to the length of our working lives. Only a few people such as artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, or innovators get to experience them. Because of this craving, we see people engage in hobbies, volunteer craftsmanship, or games. These provide opportunities for Flow and mastery that regular work too often denies. As motivators, flow and mastery are cheap. They’re the natural desire to do great work. We need to have an economy that is more varied, so that each person can find their own niche to be a master of.
Dominance is the human drive that most strongly shapes the world today. We, especially men, seek power over others. We climb hierarchies. We accumulate wealth, which is nothing but a relative measure of our reserves of power over other people. We don’t see security in equality, institutions, or a social contract. We see it in power. In other words, we bet that when things get bad, we’d better have the upper hand. We acknowledge that age will make us unimportant, and cling to power as a substitute. We have kids. That’s not to dominate our kids but so that our kids can go forth and dominate others on our behalf.
We compete. The business climate, especially in the US, is based on dominance. Microsoft didn’t go for being profitable, for merely having satisfied customers and higher earnings than expenses. It went for the win. Corporations see the world as a place where there’s room for only a few winners, and grow aggressively to be in the winning positions. The drive to do lead such a corporation is not a drive for wealth, but a drive for dominance. Bill Gates wasn’t in for the money, after the first billion or so. He was in for the natural drive to win, to dominate the industry. Ordinary engineers are motivated by the hope of having the one great idea that trumps the competition.
Our world is set up in the service of dominance to an unhealthy degree. We neglect pleasure as we strive for dominance. We don’t allow people to be vulnerable. We set aside our empathy, so it won’t get in the way. Instead of solving global problems, we merely fight for a good position in the ensuing misery. We seek dominance for importance and make it our purpose, instead of finding other purposes that are more compatible with others. We put too much creative energy behind it. We act as if we’re addicted to it.
None of this is surprising. We’re the descendants of the dominant, so we’re evolved for it. Maybe there were more pleasure-loving, empathic, or creative people in Europe or Asia, but our dominant ancestors butchered them. We then went to Africa, South Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific. Maybe there were people there who weren’t so coldly focused on dominance, but we killed them or enslaved them, and now the world is shaped by us. Our global Anglo-Saxon culture is the culture that grew out of the near-genocide of the Native Americans. In dispassionate Darwinian terms, the emerging World culture is the dominant breed.
As we face up to the idea that every human being on the planet has a claim to prosperity, and that both the natural and the human resources of the planet are bounded, this legacy is not good for us.