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The Nature of Commitment

The Nature of Commitment

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    In a comment on my recent post about breaking up, someone asked if I’d write a follow-up about staying together. I’ve actually written about successful relationships before, based less on my own experience than on the work of relationship psychologists, so I’ll just refer you there if you’re looking for relationship advice. But thinking about what goes into a committed relationship got me thinking about the nature of commitment itself. What does it mean to be committed to something, whether to a person, a cause, a project, a government, a job, or an institution?

    It’s funny how many of the words that we use to describe devotion are also used to describe insanity. The word “fan”, for instance, refers to someone who is a devoted admirer of an artist, musician, author, or other creator (or a piece of their work), but it comes from “fanatic”, a maniacal follower of some cause or leader. The guy in line at the Stephen King signing is a fan; the guy who follows him around from signing to signing claiming King killed John Lennon is a fanatic.

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    Likewise, we use the same word, “committed”, to describe someone’s devotion to a cause or person as we use to describe their incarceration in a mental institution. Is there a similarity? Well, to be committed means to pledge, bind, or oblige one’s self to something: a course of action, a system of beliefs, or indeed a medical treatment facility.

    So, is being committed a sort of insanity? Well, no — but certainly there are some similarities between the kind of obsession that leads us to do horrible things to ourselves or others and the kind of obsession that leads us to greatness. We can look at someone like Steve Jobs and see that at work, the single-minded commitment to a vision of how the world should and could work, and the refusal to acknowledge other, “lesser” ways.

    OK, enough prologue. What is commitment, then?

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    1. Commitment is passion.

    Obsessive passion, maybe. Someone who is truly committed to something can’t not do it. You can’t live without accomplishing your cause or being with your significant other. Fulfilling that commitment gives you great pleasure — being with the person you love, pushing forward a project you believe in, creating a tiny pocket of betterness in the world, these are deeply satisfying to the person who is committed.

    2. Commitment is action.

    Actions speak louder than words, right? A person who is committed shows that commitment, over and over, in his or her actions. If your actions don’t match your commitment, you simply aren’t committed to it. You may have a belief, a hunch, a preference, a desire, but not a commitment.

    3. Commitment is obligation.

    What separates the truly committed from the rest of us is the way they embrace the crappiest parts of the job, setting their jaw and taking on the work that the rest of us wouldn’t dream of. It’s the parent scrubbing puke from the carpet at 4 in the morning, the doting spouse helping their aged partner on and off the toilet, the executive who flies halfway around the room to apologize in person for a badly flubbed marketing campaign, the firefighter who charges into a dangerous fire because he or she hears screaming, the soldier who holds his or her ground while the rest of company flees. You do these things not because they are fun or pleasurable in their own right, but because your commitment demands you do them.

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    4. Commitment is larger than the self.

    Commitments are personal, but they’re also about relationships. The committed artist sacrifices everything to express his or her inner vision to the world. The committed lover cares first and foremost for the emotional and physical well-being of his or her partner. The committed performer takes the stage in the service of the audience. The committed activist creates a better world not for him- or herself but for the generations to come. True commitment embraces and engages the world.

    5. Commitment is voluntary.

    Commitment is obligation, yes, but it’s freely chosen obligation. Even the draftee chooses to be a hero in the heat of combat — or not to be. The environmentalist huddling shivering in a cold boat in arctic waters, protecting a pod of whales from a whaling ship, can take refuge in the fact that they chose to be there. The parent chooses to have and keep a child, no matter how accidental the pregnancy; the spouse chooses to stay in the marriage; the worker chooses to stay on the job.  It is that choice that makes it a commitment — without the choice it’s just slavery.

    (Ironically, being committed to a mental institution is not voluntary. Oh well…)

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    When we feel forced into something, when we feel obligations hanging on us like an albatross, when our actions fail to match our beliefs — these are signs that we aren’t as committed as maybe we thought we were. Maybe not committed at all. Pay attention to those signs — it’s easy to convince ourselves of a commitment that isn’t really a commitment at all.

    So, what did I miss? And what are you committed to? Let’s talk about commitment in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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