by Robert Wheeler
Sometimes it is difficult to get out of bed in the morning, stumble through getting dressed, and trundle off to work. Sometimes challenges at work or other difficulties make you wonder why you are putting up with these hardships. Top on the list of reasons is money—we all need it. Then comes comfortableness, health, entertainment, relationships, and security. These are mainly physical and social needs, but is there something more? Study of needs, drives, desires, and reinforcements have been useful in explaining many behaviors of living things, but for humans more is needed. The development of the human species and civilization indicates a pattern of goals beyond just meeting immediate daily needs, something more that makes these efforts worthwhile.
Never in the annals of human history have physical needs been better fulfilled. Lifespan has doubled in the past couple of hundred years and quality of health is vastly improved. Technology has provided climate control, food abundance, and other sources for unparalleled comfort. Even entertainment is now widely available. Yet on the other hand, crime and murder has increased, competition has become aggressive and sometimes violent. Mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, and anomie as well as suicide and domestic violence have mushroomed. The Pew Forum reports a widely spread general mood of dissatisfaction. With the astounding advances in civilization, why have not there been advances in sense of well-being and satisfaction? The answer lies somewhere in “something more,” something more than meeting immediate daily physical needs, something more than the competition, consumerism, violence, and gratifications the media bombards us with and is emphasized be our leaders, politicians, and educators.
Research about human motivation has typically involved studies about meeting needs and desires such as money, job performance, health, comfort, sex, and security. During its hey-day in the middle 1900’s, the psychology of motivation focused on rewards, reinforcements, and punishments. Studies of animal behavior explained much of human behavior. To explain other aspects of human behavior such as job performance, Theory X and Y were developed by Douglas McGregor under the influence of Abraham Maslow’s work with actualization. Theory X treated employees as needing close supervision with tangible rewards and immediate incentives. Since something more seemed needed, McGregor developed Theory Y which treated employees as creative partners desiring to contribute high job performance and to develop their own potential. This grew out of the humanistic approach to psychology focusing on factors internal to individual rather than only those external or environment based. Dr Maslow captured this with the term self-actualization, the drive of individuals to pursue personal potentials beyond immediate physical needs. And, in his later work, he added the term transcendent actualization.
This was taken further by McGregor with Theory Z where individuals pursue potentials external to the self—something bigger or higher than the self. Psychology studies supports the importance of the need for an orientation external to the self, and when it involves meaning and explanation of existence, it is called “transcendence.” This seems to be a basic need that provides energy for meeting more personal immediate needs. A major support for this transcendence comes from a study of history.
History indicates that ever since people have had the capacity to be conscious of self, they have been concerned about the reason for their existence, what started and supports it, and existence of something transcendent to the self. Explanations were mysterious and led to religions and many branches of science. Because the answers to these concerns are nebulous and beyond physical science, people developed metaphysical explanations that became social enterprises with structure and accepted beliefs. Such belief systems formed cultures and dominated societies. They now range all the way from determinism established by a theistic force to materialism that excludes anything beyond physical nature. Psychology research indicates these beliefs come from a wonderment similar to a personality trait and could be called “ontological imperative.” Ontos is an ancient Greek word representing being as the fundamental aspect of existence. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies the ultimate being and reality that is the object of the ontological imperative. This is about a fundamental or basic motivation that energizes motives to meet immediate needs, and that provides meaning and justification for related efforts. It is the drive to find and have meaningful purpose for these efforts, something more than just continuing immediate personal existence.
When a person is consciously concerned with this ontological imperative, two aspects become important. First, what is the imperative? Is it merely about having a goal or a hierarchy of goals? Is it to have a sense of purpose in one’s own life, or the purpose of life in general? Much research is available about the role of an individual’s sense of meaning and purpose with their health, well-being, and performance. The famous Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl helped set the stage for positive psychology by developing a therapy aimed at helping people uncover their purpose-in-life.
The second aspect of the ontological imperative is the nature of its goals, its source, and the nature of that source. Is it the product of a divine force or great architect that designed and created our universe and gave purpose to life, or is it something else that increased the evolution of complexity from fundamentals such as forces and fields to particles, matter, organisms, and finally humans? Are some goals better than others? Modern science and philosophy have provided support for many different theories from theistic design to naturalistic emergence. Most scientists admit that at the present time, adequate explanation is not objectively known. The nature of this source is currently beyond the view of science and can only be revealed or speculated. Even the revealed answers of religions are now recognized as interpretations of human minds. Objective support may even be forever beyond the grasp of personal human awareness. Whether goals were designed by a transcendent force or evolved from adaption, is not as important as recognizing that they are important for comfortable existence.
In the meantime, we seem to have an imperative to search for meaning, purpose, and explanation of existence. It is the object of the ontological imperative. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and it is natural for people to want closure and the answers provided by religious and philosophical systems. Unfortunately, many time these systems stimulate dogmatic conclusions that discourages further search and that conflict with experience and logic. More satisfying are conclusions held tentatively and subject to question and investigation. Information presented in this article supports a tentative conclusion that the purpose of life is to grow and develop both as individuals and as species. This is similar to the philosophy popularized by the famous French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin involving the “omega point” to which life is oriented. At that point consciousness would be able to survive the eschaton (cessation of earthly existence) predicted by many religions and the ultimate global warming (earth destruction by the sun) predicted by physical science. How comforting it is to think about such a positive outcome. It elevates the pursuit of needs to Dr. Maslow’s transcendent actualization and makes Dr. McGregor’s Theory Z more useful.
Despite our improved standard of living with its comforts and entertainment particularly in the United States, there are increasing rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and criminality. Many people are dissatisfied and have a feeling of meaninglessness or discontent from wanting something more. They are bombarded with media coverage about consumerism, crime, fraud, conflict, and terrorism. Educators cater to radical activists and teach self-enhancement and material wealth. Politicians and community leaders push for power and self-interests. Nations pursue warfare, global conflict, and violence. All of this could be replaced with cooperation and helpfulness if pursuit of the ontological imperative was emphasized instead.
How nice it would be if our media, educators, and politicians would emphasize this underlying basic human motivation rather than that for immediate gratifications and thrilling events. Not only would it alleviate personal and domestic problems, it would also reduce global conflicts.