1/22/2007

Validation Revelation: My New Psychotheory

The structure of this year dedicated to writing has left me with a great deal of time by myself and within my own head, which has been both a blessing and a curse. In addition to providing the opportunity for the output of a novel that would probably otherwise not have emerged (the end of the first draft, though it has retreated many thousands of words and dozens of pages from my initial vision of it in the actual writing, is now finally within my grasp--I intend to finish tonight), one of the less expected benefits has been an opportunity to come to know various truths about myself which might otherwise have taken years, perhaps a lifetime, to understand. It is the most recent, and overarching, of these that forms my topic for this evening's entry.

It comes in the form of a generalized psychological theory of motivation, which I suspect could be applied to a number of individuals besides myself, although it also has very specific ramifications for my unique situation. The basic premise is as follows: The individual is inclined to seek a sense of validation as justification for her behavior. That is to say, a person will seek out some standard against which one's life choices can be judged, and will then attempt to make choices that satisfy that standard, in order to achieve contentedness or a sense of self-satisfaction.

The standards in question can be expressed as assertions regarding the purpose of a person's existence, and there are a countless number of them floating around in the world, serving as the bases for various people's behavior. Some examples include:

The point of life is to...
* make lots of money.
* help people in need.
* enjoy yourself.
* convert others to your way of thinking.
* be loved/admired/respected/known by other people.
* achieve enlightenment.
* reproduce.

Goals like these make no recommendations regarding the way in which they should be achieved. What they do is provide a marker by which it is possible to judge whether one's life is worthwhile. If you are achieving the goal you have set out to achieve, then the actions you have chosen to pursue are validated. And that sense of validation, I hypothesize, is a source of security which we are inclined to strive for.

Once a person has decided on a goal to pursue, the value of all subsequent decisions can be assessed based on whether they help or hinder this goal. Any action that furthers the goal is good, any action that prevents the goal is bad. Life is simple, clear, straightforward. The difficult part is selecting the goal in the first place.

When we enter this world, we are not provided with a manual explaining to us what we are supposed to with the life with which we have been entrusted. We are thus forced to select for ourselves some statement of purpose to shape our decisions. In the absence of the aforementioned manual, we seek guidance in this decision wherever else it is available. We look to those around us--our culture, parents, teachers, mentors, heroes, and friends--to see what principles they seem to have chosen to guide their own choices and actions. We read the ruminations of past thinkers on the subject--philosophers, theologians, scientists. We consult our own internal intuitions. In the course of a life, as the inputs of these sources fluctuate, a person may shift allegiance from one purpose to another, but at any given moment, it seems to me that a person's sense of the value of her own life is a function of the extent to which she senses herself to be achieving the goal she believes at that moment is the true purpose of her existence.

I don't think that people are always fully conscious of having selected an assertion about the point of life by which they are evaluating their lives. Sometimes we unconsciously internalize these theories of purpose from our surrounding milieu, along with a sense of the markers by which we can assess whether we are adhering to them effectively. To use one of my favorite pet peeves as an example, romantic comedies champion the theory that the purpose of life is to be loved romantically, and propose that one judge the value of one's life by whether one is in a romantic relationship. While people extensively exposed to this way of thinking might not be consciously aware of having aligned themselves with the belief that the underlying purpose of life is tied to one's involvement in a romantic relationship, they may nevertheless have done so subconsciously, and may thus find themselves content and secure when they are in such a relationship, and discontent and insecure when they are not. It is thus possible to determine what theory of the purpose of life you have come to accept by examining the times when you feel secure versus the times when you feel insecure.

To bring this theory to a personal level, I have recently come to realize that I am in a moment of uncertainty as to the underlying purpose of life on which I should be evaluating my actions. I am undecided regarding the ultimate point of my existence. This makes it difficult for me to make a decision about how to proceed with my life. If the point of life is to make a lot of money, I should proceed in one direction; if the point is to serve other people, that suggests another course; if the point is to do what makes me happiest, that might point towards yet another.

The people I am closest to differ from one another in the purposes they base their own decisions on, making it difficult for me to decide which is best, which is right. This uncertainty makes it equally tricky to evaluate my current activities--is this time devoted to writing highly worthwhile, or a total waste of time? It is particularly disconcerting to me since I have just emerged from a phase when the immediate purpose of my life, if not the ultimate one, was relatively straightforward--do well in school. It was something I was capable of doing, enjoyed doing, and could easily determine how successfully I was doing, while at the same time being supported as a worthwhile task by pretty much everyone I encountered. The regular assurances, in the form of good grades, that notified me that I was successfully accomplishing this purpose lent a sense of validity, not just to my time spent studying or working on homework, but to all the activities in which I engaged. As long as good grades were what mattered, and I was getting them, everything I was doing was justified.

This is oversimplifying to a certain extent, because in truth I was at the time operating with several other simultaneous theories of additional purposes to life, like not causing harm to other people, being productive, being liked, and enjoying myself, which shaped the way I chose to spend my time when I was not striving to get satisfactory grades. The point is, that in the absence of this clear, specific, and widely approved source of validation, a sense of security about my decisions is much more difficult to achieve.

I share this largely because the realization, and the clarity and specificity of its formulation, has helped me to understand my own reactions to various circumstances, which I always value and appreciate. It has tied together a number of disparate phenomena and observations, which tends to indicate to me that a theory has some validity. It has also given me some guidance about how to proceed with my life. So, I thought I would share my thinking on the matter with anyone who chances across this particular blog entry, especially any of the brilliant minds I so value in my family, friends, and acquaintances. If you have any commentary on my theory, in its general form or as it might relate, specifically, to your life, or to mine, I would love to hear it. I hope that you are content with the life purpose you have chosen to pursue and your success in pursuing it; or, if not, that you will take this opportunity to further contemplate the matter and perhaps move towards such a desirable state of affairs.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Jason said...

I wholeheartedly agree that post-graduation plans are particularly daunting, especially after a very clear and organized structure of higher education, which has a clear beginning , middle, and end, plus a clear qualitative and quantitative progress report as you proceed.

Beyond determining an ultimate goal for yourself, I've found it helpful to further subdivide into smaller three to five year plans. Of course, I'm always ready to throw those plans out the window.

cest la vie.

2:06 PM  
Blogger jack said...

A lot of what you've said there seems very true, and feels like it's straight out of my life.

Also, I never realised you were capable of such mercenary thoughts. And I shall now take this opportunity to announce my full support for the economically-unsound 'greater personal happiness' life-path!

5:15 PM  
Blogger Dad said...

I agree with the general thesis. I think most people internalize this in an overarching goal of "seeking happiness." I have never heard of anyone admitting to searching for unhappiness. People then define happiness in many ways and set under this goal many sub-goals that they see as necessary to obtaining their overall goal. Many of these sub-goals are on your list, some are not. My list would include finding a desirable partner and enjoying a loving and stable family life; raising children (as opposed to just creating them); making money and finding the time to enjoy it; having an enjoyable and stimulating career; achieving security and respect at work and at home; pursuing my favorite hobbies or passions; expanding my mind and body through travel, reading, exercise and competitive pursuits; relaxing and unwinding; spending time alone and with others when I want to and depending on how I feel. These sub-goals often are conflicting and serving one will often cause negative effects on the other. It is the balancing act of current gratification against future gratification that is often the trickiest. Working hard now so you will have more time and resources later or spending time now with family and friends instead of working and advancing in your career are easy examples. Obviously our lives are also usually segmented into different periods, growing up, going off to college and grad school, choosing a career, raising a family, developing and succeeding in your career, cutting back on your career, retiring and kicking back on what you have accomplished, passing on what you have learned and achieved to family and friends. In each period I think we have a different focus and this focus changes over time as we grow and mature and we get less physically able to the things in our younger days. In the end we just want our health and our family and friends and the other goals tend to lose their importance. Life is journey, not a destination and most of us are just trying to enjoy the ride as best we can. We also want to convince ourselves our efforts are worthwhile and have meaning so it generally becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that we are happy because most of the time we are doing what we choose unless it is painfully clear to us that we are not. This is when we are most unhappy when we feel trapped in a situation that is not of our choosing and we feel is beyond our control. Usually this is a mental trap as most of us can extricate ourselves from a bad situation if we really try, though some issues are truly beyond our control such as our own health or the actions of other that we can't control. It is for this reason many seek help or comfort from a higher power in these situations.

12:46 PM  

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