And no, that title is not a typo. ‘The Weeknd’ is the name of a Canadian singer I just discovered thanks to the Offspring. Part singer, part actor, part philosopher, this young man really knows how to tell a story:
But while the writer in me loves the concept behind ‘Gasoline’ – the reverse of Eudaimon, if you will – ‘Call Out My Name’ is the music that engages my emotions at a visceral level. Damn he can sing!
Philosophers have been talking about human motivation since the time of Aristotle. Are our actions motivated by reason or feelings? Logic or instinct?
As a writer and someone fascinated by biology, I’m hedging my bets a little. I think most of us are motivated by feelings, but I believe many of those feelings are learned responses and as such, can be influenced by reason. Furthermore, I believe all warm-blooded creatures on this planet ‘tick’ the same way. We are all driven to seek out those things that give us pleasure and learn to avoid those that give us pain.
That’s pretty basic. In humans, the fear response – i.e. I-must-avoid-xx-because-it-is-painful – is controlled by the amygdala, an incredibly powerful part of the brain. The amygdala only has to experience something painful once. After that, it will warn us with ‘fear’ whenever we are in danger of repeating that experience. This is a great survival trait in the wild, but not that great in an ordered, civilized [with a huge grain of salt] world. Just think about phobias about spiders or snakes etc.
On the other side of the equation, a newborn baby’s suckle response is instinctive, but most other pleasures are actually learned. What baby is born liking ice-cream? -cough- Or alcohol? And that is a nice segue into learning to like things that go against our survival instincts.
“I tender as my first item of evidence, your Honour, the human love affair with motorbikes, motorcars and other machines that go fast and are highly dangerous.”
You’ll notice that apart from alcohol, I haven’t talked about pleasures that are, or become, addictive. Addiction is, to a large extent, a physiological disorder rather than a ‘choice’ whereas driving fast cars is something we choose to do for a variety of reasons.
But learning to like things that may be bad for us is not restricted to humans. All warm-blooded species to it, even those so-called lower order animals that are said to function solely on instinct.
Having grown up with animals, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of pure instinct – i.e. the mechanical performance of actions without any element of choice [my definition only]. Am I trying to say that my dog and cat use logic like we do? No. But the mere fact that both species share my home, and actually seem to seek out each other’s company, is a fair indication that something has overcome their instinctive fear of and aggression towards each other.
Taking personal experience one step further, all the birds in and around my garden know two things about me:
I put tasty things out on the compost, and
I would never harm them
One magpie has taken this trust a step further and will take scraps of meat from my hand. I should also add that none of my magpie neighbours dive bomb me during nesting season. They will dive on Golli and Mogi [cat and dog respectively], but never on me.
Yet this lack of aggression is far from normal. I still remember walking through a park when the Offspring was very little and being chased by a pair of very angry magpies. I suspect most Australians will have their own stories of magpie aggression, so the behaviour of ‘my’ magpies is not ‘normal’, instinctive behaviour.
One of the most extreme examples of such counter-instinct behaviour is the story of the lioness who adopted a baby oryx [a kind of deer or antelope]. The story has a sad ending, but not because she ate the baby:
Closer to home, here’s a video about a cat that adopts ducklings:
So if all these examples are neither pure instinct nor the result of reason, then what are they?
You might say that in these two cases of cross species adoption, mother ‘instinct’ becomes stronger than survival instinct – i.e. knowing what to kill in order to eat. I prefer to think that the pleasure of mothering over-rides the instinct to kill for food.
Does the lioness reason her way to action? I very much doubt it, but then how much reason do we use when we put our own lives at risk to rescue a child from a burning house, or to drag someone from shark infested waters, or any other act of heroism you care to name?
Frankly, if reason were our motivator, no child would ever be rescued, no hero would ever be presented with a medal. Reason would tell us ‘this is crazy, don’t do it’.
So does that mean reason has no part to play?
Personally, I believe that reason builds a habit of belief, and it’s that belief that over-rides pure instinct. What kind of belief? How about courage, or honour, or the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad?
When we uphold those beliefs, and survive the experience, we are rewarded by a sense of satisfaction or pride. That is a form of emotional pleasure. On the other hand, if we don’t uphold those beliefs, for whatever reason, we are haunted by feelings of guilt and shame, both of which are examples of emotional pain.
I suspect that logic and reason are like muscles, the more we use them, the stronger they become, allowing us to over-ride some of our instinctive reactions to pleasure and pain. But…however we may rationalise our actions after the fact, the driver of those actions is still going to be a feeling rather than logic.
I’ve been thinking a hell of a lot about motivation lately, but I know reality is far more complex than the ideas I’ve explored in this post. I’d love to hear what you think. Are we rational creatures or puppets driven by biology…or maybe something in between?
I’ve admired Arnold Schwarzenegger for decades, literally. Not because he was the world’s best actor -rolls eyes- definitely not because of that. No, I admired him for making the American Dream work for him. For being smart enough to succeed at every impossible task he set for himself.
But…it was not until I saw this video that I realised how utterly driven he was and is:
I understand driven. My father was driven. My ex is still driven. Me? I guess I’ve always been driven too, but not to succeed in the accepted sense. All my life I’ve wanted to be the best person I am capable of being.
I won’t bore you with a whole lot of personal history, or philosophy for that matter, I’ll simply tell you about a Greek concept called ‘Eudaimonia’:
According to Aristotle, every living or human-made thing, including its parts, has a unique or characteristic function or activity that distinguishes it from all other things. The highest good of a thing consists of the good performance of its characteristic function, and the virtue or excellence of a thing consists of whatever traits or qualities enable it to perform that function well.
Having been brought up as a Catholic, my definition of Eudaimonia has to include ethics, so part of what I strive for is a kind of moral goodness. I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and I try very hard never to hurt anyone, either physically or emotionally. But not doing something is not enough. I also try very hard to ‘right wrongs’ when I can. That’s why Twitter has become the forum where I try to counter false information. And because I have enough to live a modest, contented life, I try to give to the less fortunate, when I can. To be kind. To put others first, because that is my definition of love.
Another part of my Eudaimonia is to develop all the talents I was born with. That’s where my writing comes in. I love being told that someone enjoyed my writing, and I would love to be a best selling author. But…popular and financial success has to be according to my rules. No compromise. For me, writing has always and will always be ‘Plan B’.
I guess a lot of you are thinking that I’m trying to be some kind of latter day Mother Theresa. Believe me, I’m not. My reasons for all of the above are quite selfish, you see one of the things I discovered while doing a philosophy degree was that Eudaimonia can be measured…by the death bed test.
Morbid? Not really. The death bed test goes something like this: a man [or woman!] is dying. As they lie there, waiting to throw off this mortal coil, they think back over their lives, over everything they have ever done. Being Eudaimon is to find that you have no regrets.
That is my Plan A – to have no regrets. Much as I still admire Arnold Schwarzeneger, I wonder if he will have any. He’s accomplished most of what he set out to do, but what price did he have to pay for that success? And how clean are his hands?
I don’t believe Schwarzeneger would take what was not his, but I don’t think he gave much of himself either. Will he be remembered by those he leaves behind as a loving man, or as a self-centred, selfish one?
Someone once said that I was a ‘difficult woman’. That’s true. But I try very hard to be a good one.
I’d love to read your comments, but not about me. I’m simply the counter argument to Schwarzeneger’s view of life, and the meaning of success. Let’s talk instead about life, death and the meaning of the universe.
At an intellectual level I’ve always known that being an individual entails being different to others, at least in some respects. And yet…despite age, and enough life experience to sink a ship, I keep expecting others to like what I like. In other words, I keep expecting them to be like me.
Every time I write about a book I’ve loved, or a glorious vista, or a piece of music that moved my soul, I expect that you will feel the same way. And I’m rarely wrong. The individuals who gravitate to this blog and become friends are, by and large, like me. Thanks to the power of social media, you are my kindred spirits. 🙂
By definition, a kindred spirit is someone like oneself, and on social media it happens when people are drawn to each other via shared interests. Think iron filings to a magnet. The degree to which we ‘stick’ depends upon the number of interests we share.
This filtering process happens in the real world too, but at a much slower rate because we can only physically interact with a small number of people at a time – family, friends, neighbours, colleagues at work etc. Plus there is no guarantee that the people we do meet will be sympatico.
And right there is one of the most wonderful and dangerous aspects of social media – the ability to consistently give us what we want.
Why? Because most of us want to belong. We want to be with people who make us feel warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves.
This is how social media bubbles form. But feeling good about ourselves involves a value judgement about what ‘good’ actually means. Even if you never consciously question your own likes and dislikes, you recognize them in others and automatically judge them to be ‘good’.
And I’m no different. I believe I’m a good person, so I can’t help believing that people who share my values are good people too.
But if we are the good people, what of the others? What of those who don’t share our values? Are they the bad people?
My head says “Of course not!” My heart says “Maybe”.
Every time I log in to Twitter and read a comment distorting some fact or praising something I consider to be ‘evil’, the anger says “Bad person, bad, bad!”
And then the shame sets in because I know that person isn’t bad. I know that if I got to know them through some other area of life, I’d probably think they were okay.
How do I know that? Because I’ve lived it. Many years ago when I lived in a shared student house, there was a girl there with a very abrasive personality. I didn’t like her one little bit. Then one day, to my shame, I discovered that the abrasiveness was just a facade to protect the sad person underneath.
More recently, I’ve discovered that many of the right wing panelists on The Drum [see footnote 1 at the end of this article] aren’t right wing about all topics. In fact, I’ve often caught myself marvelling that someone with those political affiliations could be so open to, for example, action on climate change, or same sex marriage or some other supposedly left wing issue.
I’m a left wing progressive, but I don’t intend to turn this post into some kind of pseudo political rant. Instead, I want to hammer home the fact that expectations based on social media bubbles are dangerous.
We humans are hardwired to generalise. It’s a powerful mental shortcut that allows us to make snap decisions based on just a few facts. This ability would have been a real survival mechanism back in the days of the woolly mammoth. These days? Not so much because thinking in generalities often substitutes for thinking, period.
Sadly, social media bubbles reinforce those generalities just when we should be questioning everything, starting with our own assumptions. We need facts, and we need to call out untruths, but we need to do so with courtesy because that ‘other’ person is more like us than not.
In years to come, people will look back on this era of social media and shake their heads at how bad the ‘wild wild west’ really was before it was tamed. In that yet-to-be-realised future, individual privacy will be protected by law, anonymity will not be allowed, and social media companies will face the full force of the law if they’re found to have manipulated their users.
But we’re not there yet.
Footnote 1 : The Drum is a current affairs show on Australian TV. It’s part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] and funded by taxpayers. As such, its charter requires that it be unbiased. That’s why the panelists on The Drum are chosen to be inclusive, and represent as many interest groups as possible, including people of both the left and right political persuasion.
Carpe diem by any other name smells as sweet*, and yet those lyrics from Dusty Springfield’s song ‘Going Back’ literally made me shiver.
Of course we have to live in the now. The ‘now’ is all we truly have. Our talk of the past and the future is just the naked ape trying to make sense of the world. The past only exists in our memories, and the future belongs to our imagination. So three cheers for the Now. But the Now can be wasted, trivialized, spent on small pleasures while the big ones gather dust.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time, but never more so than now, now that I’m getting older with so much still to do. I don’t know how many productive years I have left, but knowing they are finite is like a hand on my back, pushing me forwards, making me strive, making me want to create something of lasting value.
I know I’m not alone. Every Baby Boomer who sets out to do something – no matter what that may be – is feeling the same way, which is why I think that counting our years is the one, positive thing about ageing.
So no, Dusty, I don’t want to go back; I just wish I’d started sooner. Youth really is wasted on the young.**
My thanks to David Prosser for sharing this great video clip and kick starting my bout of philosophy! [In other words, this is all his fault. :D]
Happy Sunday from Downunder,
*A deliberate misquote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
**There is some debate as to who first came up with the quote about youth being wasted on the young. Some sources cite George Bernard Shaw while others believe it was actually Oscar Wilde. I don’t really care; it’s just a great quote.