2012-05-15

What Is The Point?

Bangla Word of the Day:
লাভ: [labh] n. - Point, purpose, etc.


Note that there is no inherent vowel sound after the "bh" consonant at the end of the word. Bangalis will often say "Labh ki?" which means, "What's the point?" It has the same connotation that it  has in English, meaning that it is frequently used as an expression of exasperation or hopelessness. While it's not a particularly optimistic thing to say, it's still a pretty handy phrase. 


No Really, What Is The Point?
Yesterday, I spent some time discussing the virtues of competition and self-improvement. In that post, I wrote:
This isn't because a person is always inadequate and needs to reach a "better place." Fitness gurus, coaches, self-help advisers and others often get this one wrong. It's not because your life sucks that you want your life to be better. If a person tries and tries and never improves, that person isn't a "failure," and I wouldn't automatically assume that such a person is unhappy or dissatisfied.
In hindsight, I realize that I may have glossed over the most important aspect of the matter, for this paragraph as a stand-alone statement is wholly unsatisfying.


So the question is posed: Why should we chase these dreams of self-improvement? Really, why should we undertake all this effort to try to make ourselves better people rather than simply accepting ourselves as we are living our lives accordingly? If you're not going to win a race, what is the point of trying to be competitive? If you're not going to be a rock star, why write songs and arrange for live performances? Why not just be happy with what life has given you and learn to exist as such?


In short, why bother?


It's a challenging question, one that I will attempt to answer here, at least partially.


External Influences On Self-Improvement
We in North American culture tend to focus - negatively - on the negative influences driving us to attempt to "fix ourselves." We have developed all sorts of epithets for these influences: "the rat-race," "our image-obsessed culture," "consumerism," "keeping up with the Joneses," and so on. Our communities both large and small exert an enormous amount of pressure on us to conform and fit in with the prevailing standards of the day.


I think we intuitively and universally know such pressures to be an unequivocal negative. None of us should feel like failures if we don't have a nice car like the family down the street, or as big a house, or as trim a waistline, or as high an income, or as high a standing in the community. People waste whole lifetimes chasing social status and seeking approval from others.


The reason this is a losing game is that no matter how much stuff you acquire, no matter how much status you have among your fellow men, there will always be critics trying to chop you back down to size. Even the epithets I mentioned two paragraphs ago were developed to try to diminish those people who have excelled the most at acquiring possessions, looking beautiful, having neat stuff, and earning lots of money.


If you're trying to please all these people, you just can't win.


But there are other external influences out there, too - positive ones.


Take for example the man driven to earn fabulous riches so that he can guarantee that his children have every convenience throughout their lifetimes. A very productive person in a free society can often earn so much wealth that his/her children and even grandchildren can live comfortably throughout their whole lives. Such an endeavor is a labor of love, and none of us could reasonably call this person's motives into question.


This is especially true since we are all so influenced, even if to a lesser degree. Our desire to leave our children with a better chance than we had is one of the most natural and fundamental of desires. Perhaps it is not even unique to human beings alone.


So this is one external influence on self-improvement. Another example might be an overweight parent or family member who successfully turns his/her health around in order to inspire his/her family not to make the same mistake. YouTube is replete with videos of amazing transformations, often posted by the very family members who were intended to be inspired. 


We've all seen the reality TV shows, showing people who take on unique and difficult challenges so that they can demonstrate to their friends and family that amazing things are possible in life if we set our sights on achieving them. 


Again, such motives are fundamentally external in nature. The driving force is not the person improving and achieving, but an intended spectator. I am not so sure that any of us would suggest this kind of external motivation is negative. But what is the difference between the "negative" and the "positive" external influences?


I would argue that the fundamental difference is specificity


If you spend your time trying to please a nebulous mass of people - a "community" or "people in general," for example - then you cannot hope to succeed, because there is always some fraction of any given population who want to see the exact opposite of what you intend to do. For everyone who will appreciate that you earned a raise, there is someone who will resent you or criticize your "materialistic" goals.


On the other hand, if you identify particular individuals whose approval you would like to win for noble reasons - your children, so that they may live a better life, or recipients of a local charity that matters to you, for example - then suddenly the goal is entirely within your reach.


You can't please everyone, but you can please someone. If that "someone" happens to matter a great deal to you and is worth pleasing, then such an external influence can be a powerful motivational factor that can inspire you to achieving great things.


Internal Influences on Self-Improvement
Of course, you can also waste a lifetime trying to win the approval of a loved one, too. A great many of us still suffer from the demons of our childhood, in which we feel we could never live up to the expectations of a few people we admired, from which we desperately wanted approval. If you realize that you may not ever get that approval - or even if you don't - you'll need more to keep you going in life than the approval of others. 


That is to say, external factors are important, but insufficient. Human satisfaction requires our own internal sense of worth. We need some internal influences to work their magic on us.


Here's where things get dicey. Just as we see that many external influences are highly negative, so our internal motivations can be similarly dangerous. An unattainable desire for beauty can lead a person toward many different kinds of personal deformity (plastic surgery, eating disorders, and the like). An overwhelming appetite for the finer things in life can take us down the slippery slope of intemperate greed. A quest for glory can become an unquenchable thirst for power.


Because we all spend so much time in our heads, it is far too easy to see the problems associated with personal motivations toward greatness. Our moral and ethical systems reinforce the level of importance we attach to these problems, too. Nearly all the world's major religions vehemently condemn "greed" and "vanity," and declare that we should not waste our time on such "worldly" endeavors, but should double up our efforts with respect to the external influences on self-improvement.


But as we saw above, returning to an externally focused sense of motivation is not a panacea. There are problems with relying too much on such things.


The fact of the matter is, you need some positive internal influences to maintain your mental health, and so I repeat: human satisfaction requires our own internal sense of worth.


Identifying Your Values
One of my favorite Ayn Rand quotes is this one: 
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.
I cannot seem to source it. It has been floating around on the internet for a long time, and although I have read similar quotes throughout her work, I've never come across this one in writing. There is a wealth of wisdom in this quote, so I'd like to break it down into its most important concepts.
  1. Humans deserve to be happy. You may not have met anyone who deliberately suffers because that person believes that only suffering is noble, but I have met plenty such people. It is sad, because these people often never come to terms with the fact that happiness is an achievable state of being, and that each one of us deserves it.
  2. "Mindless self-indulgence," is not ethical, and is not the point. Ayn Rand was not a "do what you please" kind of a thinker. As a result, while she never (to my knowledge) wrote explicitly about temperance, there is a hefty implication of temperance throughout her work. Happiness, according to Rand, is not just cheap thrills and quick-fixes. Happiness is a lifelong endeavor to make yourself deeply satisfied in accordance with the things you actually value (in the long run).
  3. Happiness comes from achieving your values. Whatever you truly value, that is what will make you happy. It's different for everyone. But everyone has something (or many things) that they value, and only those through those values will a person become happy.
So with respect to discovering your "internal influences for self-improvement," we are not really talking about latching onto some shallow motivational factor like, "I have to do a good job," or "I want to look good for the party." Instead, we are talking about the fundamentals. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Sorry. I know some of you didn't want to read that.

For ethical eudaimonists like myself, "the things we value" are virtues. We identify character traits that serve somewhat like "ideals." We're not perfect, but obviously, the more virtuous we are, the happier we become. Please note, the purpose here is not to be "as close to perfect as possible," but rather to have a concept in mind that describes what would make us happiest in any given situation. Once you get away from the specter of "perfection," it is actually more like guiding principles.

Conclusion
We have seen that the point of all this self-improvement stuff is to align our personal goals with the internal and external motivational factors we encounter every day. We have also seen that both kinds of factors can be either positive and negative, and that it is probably only healthy to focus on the good ones.

Hopefully, we have also managed to identify that the whole point of all of this is achieving a fundamental sense of human happiness. As a result, we have to identify some core values that we hold, so that we can align our endeavors to those values. 

Nonetheless, I have spent a little time discussing motivational factors and self-improvement, and still feel I have covered the topic inadequately. In a future post, I would like to provide some real-world examples of internal and virtue-centric motivation at work.

Stay tuned. I promise not to keep you waiting too long!