I saw Dan Pink’s TED talk a while ago, and just recently finished reading his book Drive. They’re both about the “science of motivation” – research into what tends to influence our behaviour, what makes us more or less driven to be creative or productive, that kind of thing.
It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m trying to bear in mind that it’s also important. This research into human motivation is stuff that matters, as well as being full of quirky and interesting results you can amuse people with briefly in conversation at a dinner party.
For instance, there are some types of work that people will get done slower if you offer them a financial bonus for it. If they’re doing something creative simply for the challenge, they’ll tend to do better than if they were doing it for extra cash.
The whole book is full of interesting and odd pieces of data like this, which make people laugh in intrigued bafflement when you explain it to them.
But it also seems like it ought to change the way we do everything.
And it’s sort of beginning to, slowly. There are some stories in the book about businesses that are starting to let their workers have more autonomy and more of a chance to find purpose in their work, and are realising the benefits of not crushing their spirits with deceptively inefficient drudgery.
A lot of the ideas are quite wonderfully anarchistic, in a way. It gives me a little hope, anyway, to think that we might finally be starting to understand that making lots of money isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be really happy, even if it’s what you really want.
Because it’s true. There’s actual science backing this up. People whose goals involve things like creativity and spiritual wellbeing and becoming part of a greater purpose and all that wank tend to be much happier, when they achieve those goals, than other people who just wanted to get rich, even if those people achieve that too. Scientists have looked at how happy people are and actually figured this out. It’s not just a hippy truism. It’s happening in the real world.
But, of course, understanding that what you want might not be the best thing to want isn’t enough to make you stop wanting it. A yearning for something is a drive to action in itself, regardless of any posited future end result.
You can reason it through, and take action based on the conclusion “If I have lots of money then I will be happy” (and simply ignore the contrary evidence). But even that’s not necessary; a compulsion can simply be for its own sake, without any particular goal in mind. Then you’re not even indulging in the urge to make more money because you think money will make you happy – you’re just indulging the urge because it’s there. That’s how urges work. And they’re tricky to escape from.
I hope we really are getting closer to understanding ourselves. I wonder what that would look like, if we reached a point where we truly believed that non-materialistic fulfilment really would be nice, and knew how to persuade ourselves to attain it. We’d have cured the human condition. And we’d have to start coming up with new and more imaginative ways to fuck things up.