Solitary figure in the rain: Outside Luna Park, Sydney

Why do you do what you do? Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels? Is your life filled with activities and obligations that have no intrinsic meaning for you, things you do because you have to for one reason or another? Are you bored?

I’ve been thinking about engagement since I interviewed Michael Lee Stallard last year and reviewed his book Fired Up or Burned Out, and lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The issue really came home for me when someone posted a comment on my recent post, “Finding Purpose “, expressing an attitude that I fear is all too common among my students as well: that every class is just a means to an end, that end being the BA and, I suppose, the miserable grind of a desk job for the next 40 years after that. Whee!

Something came together for me then, something I’d had a hard time wrapping my head around before then, and that’s this: our lives should be lives of ends, not lives of means. That is to say, if everything you do is simply a way to get somewhere else, you’re missing out on life altogether — ideally, everything we do should be an end in and of itself, even if it’s intended to lead us ever-closer to some other goal.

Means people suck

The moral philosopher Immanuel Kant discussed means and ends in his famed Humanity formulation, saying “we should never act in such a way that we treat Humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself”(from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ).

Normally, this is taken as saying that you shouldn’t use others to advance your own goals, but should appreciate them for themselves, that each relationship is its own end. Relationships that exist solely to forward our own causes without regard for the humanity of those we are in relationship with become purely functional, and lessen both us and others as people. Means relationships objectify our others — that is, cause us to see and treat other people as objects, not people — and are fundamentally narcissistic.

A life of means

But there’s another part of Kant’s principle that bears mentioning — he doesn’t just say don’t treat others as means, he says don’t treat ourselves as means to an end, either. But that’s exactly what we do when we approach everything in our lives as a means to an end. Instead of engaging with the world before us, we become fundamentally disengaged and future-oriented — our attention split between the world we dwell in and the world as we want it to be, between the task at hand and the “real” reason we’re doing it.

When we treat the things we do as simply functional steps towards some future ends, function replaces meaning, and we transform our very selves into objects for the satisfaction of some future self.

Consider, for example, the growing body of research that calls into question the role of incentives. An incentive is an end separate from whatever it is we’re doing at any given moment. I might offer you a hundred-dollar bill for getting an “A”, outselling your colleagues, or serving my table well — it really doesn’t matter. The incentive is completely divorced from the reality at hand.

And research shows that this messes with our heads. In one classic psychological study, for instance, two groups of children were brought in over a period of several weeks to draw and color. In the first group, children were given awards and certificates for doing well; in the other, no rewards were offered. After several weeks, the first group — the kids with the outside incentive — were less interested in drawing and had not advanced as far technically as the second group. The kids in the second group were able to enjoy drawing for the sake of the act itself; adding incentives had shifted the first group’s focus from the fun of drawing to the ephemeral and rapidly uninteresting act of getting rewards.

It’s not just children who fail to respond to incentives, either. Another study found people were half as likely to do charity work (like delivering meals to homebound invalids) if they were offered money for the job. The ones who were asked to volunteer found intrinsic value to appreciate in the job itself; by offering money, the other subjects shifted their attention from the task to the compensation, and usually found it lacking. They researchers weren’t paying enough to get them to do a job that many of them would have been willing to do for free!

Incentives shift our relationship with what we’re doing, causing us to view our tasks as simply means to the end of gaining the incentive, rather than as activities that are valuable and worth doing in their own right. And too much of our daily lives follow the same pattern, whether they are done for incentives of various kinds or simply for the attainment of some far-off goal.

A life of ends

The trick, then, is treating every activity — or as many as possible, anyway — as an endin its own right. This means approaching the world with a higher level of reflective awareness than most of us are used to. It means taking the time to find a purpose that is internal to the things we do — that is, an incentive that isn’t imposed from outside but is part and parcel of the activity itself.

We talk about this, maybe dream about this, all the time. We speak of work that is its own reward, we lose ourselves in the flow of activity, we long for jobs that have us bounding out of bed every morning. When the things we have to do have their own intrinsic value, and when we engage with them as fully present beings, work stops being a chore and becomes something else, something better.

This isn’t to say that  we should turn away from every distasteful task, every job we simply do not want to do. Sometimes we literally do have to do something because the alternative is losing a job we’re otherwise happy with, destroying a relationship, or becoming simply incapable of reaching our goals.

Truth be told, there probably are a lot of times when we’d rather be doing anything else other than the work in front of us, and it truly is the promise of future satisfaction that motivates us. As much as you can, though, try to find the gratification that everything you do over the course of the day might bring you. And if you realize that there’s little in your life that provides its own internal worth, maybe it’s time to start rethinking some things.

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