(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
This Week’s Journal Topic: Human Activity
Human Being = Human Doing
Humans are a busy species. Human life is synonymous with willful activity. Each person is always moving, chasing objects or ideas, procuring and utilizing things – whether that’s food, money, knowledge, feelings, or relationships. Even the laziest person isn’t “doing nothing”; although his activity may be categorized as “unproductive” by other people, it cannot be strictly categorized as “nothing”, for it’s always purposeful in some way or other.
The desire to move and act is so strong that the thought of being paralyzed – even if one is perfectly safe and cared for, surrounded by loved ones – is alarming and abhorrent! That some people sign assisted-suicide documents in case they are paralyzed is proof that as a species we’d rather die than be incapacitated, cut off from activity. We have a deep desire to “do”. Human beings are humans-doing.
Frameworks for Understanding Activity
As long as we can help it, we’re thinking and acting to achieve goals. We can understand those goals differently, depending on the framework we theorize from.
Evolutionary Biology: By this descriptive (i.e. explanatory) framework, all activities serve some kind of biological, survival function. Even if “wires are crossed” in the brain and our activity results in detriment, the activity originated in the brain as an attempt to satisfy a survival need. For example, we are always searching to satisfy hunger, thirst, reproduction, and social needs.
Economics: As a descriptive framework, the economic model assumes that human activity necessarily aims to produce things of value. Humans transform one thing of value into another or create/add value to something. As a prescriptive framework, this framework advocates that activity ought to be focused on transforming or creating a profitable outcome. An unpretentious statement of this economic rule is: Ensure that your activity gives you more, not less!
Self-Expression Psychology: By this framework, all human activity is an expression of the “ego”, a.k.a. the self. The ego/self wants two things: control and expression. The ego sees the external world as a power-struggle and it desires to exercise control. By controlling all kinds of external objects, the self reaffirms itself as an independent force and enhances its self-image as a master of the environment. The ego also wants to express itself, in a way that all human activity is designed to differentiate a person from other people. The ego/self aims to affirm its uniqueness – actions express an individual identity. Opinions, ideas, conflicts, and communication say, “Here I am – see how powerful I am? I’m not you – notice how different I am!”
Artists and Ascetics: A dedicated artist says that human life aims at artistic expression in order to make life into art. A hedonist thinks we’re doing everything in order to gain pleasurable experiences. An ascetic says that a human life should aim to transcend the physical world.
Is All Activity “Rational”?
We usually equate “rational activity” with “productive activity”. Rational activity must have some kind of desired outcome. However, sometimes activity appears irrational since it appears pointless and lacking of purpose. For example, a person might develop an obsession that requires a lot of effort but has no tangible reward. An irrational activity could also be an activity that defeats a more important goal. For example, people starve themselves to death in order to feed a mental need (anorexia) or to make a statement to uphold abstract values (a hunger strike). Depending on your perspective, these activities could be categorized as either rational or irrational – the worth is subjective to the individual assessing the activity.
- How would you react to being paralyzed and not able to move?
- Sit for 5 minutes without moving at all. How do you react emotionally and physically to lack of activity? What thoughts are you having?
- Write down a list of daily goals – what is the purpose/goal behind each one?
- What are your lifetime goals? (Make some up if you don’t have any.) Are they best explained by the evolutionary biology, economics, or self-expression framework?
- Is there an obvious relationship between your daily goals and your lifetime goals?
- Reflect on your own culture and other cultures. Do you think that happy humans are “economic” humans? Does happiness come from transforming values or creating products of value?
- What irrational activity do you do – an activity that lacks a purpose or that defeats a greater purpose?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Try to do only one question every morning, leaving space to add thoughts that might come up later during the day. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
If you liked this week’s post, please like or comment! I appreciate the feedback and use it to choose future topics. If you want to see more posts like this one, let me know!