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Living a Life of Ends

Living a Life of Ends

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!

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    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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