Just Stop

“The effectance motive” is “the need or drive to develop competence through interacting with and controlling one’s environment.” It is a basic human drive, which can be observed in other species as well, most visibly in apes and monkeys. It is what drives us to solve problems, learn and make progress.

Without a sense of progress, human beings lose motivation and meaning. What’s the point of going round and round the merry-go-round if you’re not actually getting anywhere?

We need a purpose and we need an aim, and we need to feel that we are moving in the right direction. This is “the progress principle”, which is the fact that “we get more pleasure from making progress toward our goals than we do from achieving them.” This principle has actually been demonstrated neurologically: we get a dopamine hit every time we move closer to our goal.

So how does this play out in our lives? Well, it depends on the goal, obviously. Let’s have a look at the goals of the four central archetypes in the Wheel of Samsara and see where that takes us.

The muggle’s goal is success, in other words, fame and fortune. I feel good if I am moving up a status hierarchy, if I get a promotion or a raise, or if I get recognition from my superiors or peers. I feel good if I manage to acquire status symbols (big house, big car, exotic holidays and attractive partner). And I feel good when I do a good job and further my career.

All this hard work and growing competence makes me happy. It may be that all the material rewards are secondary and that my true satisfaction comes from a sense of progress and effectance. Recognition and renumeration are merely confirmation of my success, which is the primary thing. But either way, the source of my happiness is based on progress in a narrowly defined sphere of activity (“work”).

The muppet’s goal is victory. This is because muppets (who live in the “Titan Realm”) are perpetually at war. Who or what they are at war with doesn’t much matter. They may be at war with their spouse, or sibling, or with a giant abstract entity, such as “the Rich” or “the West” or “Islam” or “Postmodern Neo-Marxism”.

Football hooligans are muppets. Political activists (of all stripes) are muppets. Even if I am fighting a just cause, I am still a muppet, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m wrong. I might be completely right in my position and completely justified in my activism. It just means that I am deriving satisfaction (and dopamine) from a sense of victory, or rather, progress towards victory.

I experience every small victory against injustice or oppression or godlessness is ultimately a victory against evil. I feel that I am making progress in an eternal Manichean war between good and evil. And if I am a particularly heroic muppet, I’m not just making the world a better place, I’m actually saving it.

We also get our dopamine hit vicariously. If our children do well, for example, and make good progress relative to their peers, we feel good. If our team does well, or if our opponents suffer a humiliating defeat, we feel positively rosy, even when we had nothing to do with it personally. Sometimes we get a double dose, such as when a friend or family member vanquishes our enemies and is lifted up the status hierarchy of our tribe as a result.

Anyway, the point is that we derive a sense of meaning and happiness from the “effectance motive” and the “progress principle” when we are effective in and make progress in two different but complementary arenas: “the Rat Race” and “the Culture War”.

What about the addict? What’s the addict’s goal? More dope obviously. My goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But it’s not just the pleasure inherent in the pleasure itself that gives me a sense of continued satisfaction. It’s the success in obtaining it. The “progress principle” is at work here too. When I am making progress in my pleasure seeking behaviour, I feel good, and when I’m not, I feel bad. The absolute level of pleasure is less important than the relative.

And the victim? The goal of the victim is simply to prove how awful the world is. The victim feeds on bad news. When I’m in victim mode, I secretly delight in wars, humanitarian crises and natural disasters. I relish every sign of the imminent collapse of civilization or the relentless destruction of the environment and the looming threat of global climactic meltdown, because it confirms my belief in the essential badness of humankind.

On a personal, psychological level, I feel that I am making progress every time I unearth another trauma or discover another physical, emotional or mental problem. My “effectance motive” is basically to find more and more signs of corruption, decay, abuse, neglect, and evil in myself and in the world. My “progress principle” depends on finding ever new pieces of evidence for my negative view of reality.

The addict and the victim derive their sense of meaning and purpose from the “Hedonic Treadmill” and the “Impending Doom”. There is a built-in sense of progress, just as there is in the “Rat Race” and the “Culture War”, although it is easier, with a little distance, to see that it is progress, but on an endless loop.

There is no end to the “Rat Race”. There is no end to the “Culture War”. There is no end to the “Hedonic Treadmill”. There is no end to “Impending Doom”. We feel that we are making progress on all four fronts: we’re winning the race, we’re winning the war, we’re getting high, and we’re getting ever closer to our inevitable annihilation. But we’ll never actually win the race, win the war, stay high or spontaneously combust, even if we spend a lifetime trying.

Is this an unrealistically bleak view? Let’s be optimistic then. Maybe the personal and/or global apocalypse will actually come in my lifetime and my victim will be vindicated. Maybe I will reach the top of the heap and become President of the United States or CEO of Google and my muggle will be vindicated. Maybe my side of the Culture War will destroy the other side once and for all and my muppet will be vindicated. Maybe I will find the secret to endless bliss without any comedowns and my addict will be vindicated.

Or maybe that’s not the point. (Obviously that’s not the point). After all, it’s about the journey, not the getting there, isn’t it? As long as I feel that I am making progress, I’m happy enough and life is worth living. So who cares if I never actually “make it”?

That’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion, but it’s not very satisfying. Surely there’s more to life that accepting the illusion of progress just to get through the day? As far as I can see, there are three options available to us.

The first is to actually believe in one or more of these areas of “effectance” and throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. Believe in the Rat Race! Believe in the Culture War! Believe in the Hedonic Treadmill! Believe in Impending Doom! I can call you as many names as I want: “Muggle! Muppet! Addict! Victim!” But these are just empty insults, because you know what you’re doing, and I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about.

The second option is to accept that all this time and effort is ultimately futile, but that it doesn’t really matter. That’s just life. Everyone else is doing it. It’s normal. Take the rough with the smooth. Nobody’s perfect. And other rationalisations. Also, it passes the time of day. As long as we have “the effectance motive” and “the progress principle”, it’s all good. Imagine if you weren’t chasing these goals all the time. What on earth would you do all day?

Which brings us to the third option. Stop. Just stop. Stop the war, get off the treadmill, drop out of the race and cancel your subscription to the end of the world. Direct your “effectance motive” and “progress principle” to something real and lasting. Forget all that nonsense. Try the spiritual path instead. Then you might actually get somewhere.