This article (revises an original in The human experience: design for optimal experience) suggests and explores some key aspects implied in the process of being and becoming human, a process that I have referred to as the human purpose. It attempts to respond to the age old questions: what is the purpose, for which a response can be made on two levels: individual and societal.
At the individual level, a human being is a complex organic system – consisting of various capacities and dimensions – in a continuous growth and transition towards a higher form of itself. It is a process most obvious and observable in children; their capacities and dimensions are in continuous transition and growth not just in size or refinement but also in complexity. The same can also be said of adults, but maybe their growth is more in refinement and complexity. Inherently, no human being wants to be sick, unloved, stunted, unhappy, unexpressive, without freedom, and without the possibility to play (work).
At a social level, these aspects – happiness, growth, health, freedom and play (work) are fundamentally the questions that have come to define humanity and as a result have come to consist its purpose. History attests to their ceaseless appearance in the inquiry that humanity has grappled with. From the earliest notions and practices of science, religion, culture, commerce and so on, humans sought for ideas, tools and practices to facilitate the conception, realization and exercise of love, happiness, health, growth and freedom. The immensity of the task that our ancestors undertook is clear; after millennia it still stands not only incomplete, and largely undefined, but also ill-conceived. On a side note, it would be misleading to think of violence – since it, in history, features so prominently – as an aspect of the human purpose. Carse in Finite and infinite games, points us to its true but contradictory nature. “Evil is never intended as evil […] it originates in the desire to eliminate evil.” Whatever deed we may qualify as evil, was in its conception and doing an attempt to strive for humanness, albeit grossly misinformed and evidently wrong. It would be fatalistic to imagine that humanity is not capable of creating an alternative history. Such a notion would distort the human vocation.
The human purpose is a striving for
Self-actualization: growth and fulfillment
Maslow described self-actualization as a desire for self-fulfillment, a striving to become more and more of what one is capable of becoming. According to him, self-actualization is a human need, which an individual will strive to satiate by exploring, exercising and building his capacities and dimensions, especially those that he finds potentially fulfilling.
Csikszentmihalyi on his part provided that a self-actualizing individual becomes more complex — in their dimensions and capacities — than they were before. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Maslow equated this attainment of complexity to growth, which they expounded as follows. On the one hand the individual moves towards a uniqueness — that leaves them feeling more capable, more skillful and in possession of rarer skills — which sets them apart from others, and on the other hand towards more integration — within themselves and with others — which enables them to have more altruistic and loving relation with others.
Csikszentmihalyi further noted that even though passive, receptive and relaxing activities can be enjoyable, the best moments — optimally engaging or fulfilling — occur when as many human capacities and dimensions as possible are activated and taken into use, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,because it is then that one is fully activated, and thus at potential to realize their higher self.
Optimal engagement in the context of the human purpose refers neither to the distraction of individuals through continued excitation of their various pleasurable organs, nor the authoritative control, manipulation and guidance of individuals from which only dependence on pleasure — receptivity to external suggestion — and factitious experiences are attainable.
Humans are as wholes in process. Their ‘minding’ processes are simultaneous functions, not discrete compartments; none is thinking, who is not at the same time also emotioning, spiritualizing, and for that matter, livering. Or as Maslow noted, “self-realization cannot be achieved by intellect or rationality alone. We must modify considerably our picture of the psychological organism to respect equally rationality, emotionality, and the conative or wishing and drivingside of our nature, which are not necessarily antagonistic but can be cooperative and synergic. The healthy person is all of a piece.”
An individual strives to act holistically, taking into use all their capacities and dimensions into the phenomenon at hand. Integration within oneself means that one’s capacities and dimensions are in agreement with the task or action at hand, whence they have more of themselves to use as there is no threat to thwart or defend against. As a whole — integrated within — the individual is organized and coordinated much more perfectly than usual so he acts without doubt or hesitation, with energy yet effortlessly, is fully functioning, more spontaneous, more open to experience with the phenomenon at hand.
“Whether we are happy depends on inner harmony, not on the controls we are able to exert over the great forces of the universe.”Csikszentmihalyi
Multiplicity — cleaving into many that which is one — throws into disarray the delicate interconnectedness of the human capacities and dimensions making an individual act instinctively, in a forced and controlled way as there is a heightened guarding of oneself following the disintegration of their capacities and dimensions. Multiplicity throws emphasis on a construct of separateness of our capacities and dimensions at the expense of the intricate wholeness of being.
The consideration of the human purpose strivings as separable, hierarchical entities may only be characteristic of a dysfunctional society, in which the strivings are inhibited or impeded. Maslov was careful to point this out: “we have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order, but actually it is not nearly so rigid as we may have implied.” Observably, the satiation of lower needs does not necessarily result in a striving for the fulfillment of higher needs.
A religious person may not seek spirituality because they are well fed and sexually satiated but may forego the satiation of such needs in an attempt to realize higher spirituality.
A (closed) chain illustration of human needs can be used to imply their wholeness rather than a separateness and hierarchical order. Such an illustration that can remind us of the integrity of a chain whose strength cannot surpass its weakest link so that it may remain apparent to us that when a human need is not satiated, it is not just the respective human capacity or dimension that suffers but the whole being.
Freedom or autonomy is a fundamental aspect that nurtures the becoming more and more of what one is capable. It brings about the ability to freely explore, exercise and build one’s capacities and dimensions as one desires, and finds fulfilling.
Freedom further implies voluntary participation, which means that one is as free to partake in some phenomenon as they are to withdraw from it. In an article, The most basic freedom is freedom to quit, Gray suggested that voluntary participation is a fundamental freedom on which all other freedoms are based; “[when we] think of life’s broader goals — the goals of surviving, avoiding injury, finding happiness, and living in accordance with our personal values among people whom we respect and who respect us — then we see that freedom to quit is essential to all of these goals. I am talking here about the freedom to walk away from people and situations that are harmful to our wellbeing.”
For every human, before becoming content with the institutional role devised and assigned to you by culture, it is important to acknowledge that you are human. As such, by far, the range by which you may apply your capacities and dimensions surpass that of an institutional role, since there is no limitation imposed on the manner and extent to which you can apply them!
Freedom here does not imply independence from others or from culture, but rather an unrestricted expression and development of one’s capacities and dimensions as one desires. Relations to others and to culture ought to be maintained as long as they do not interfere with the individual’s strivings of the human purpose.
Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi have also suggested that it is through freedom that an individual can achieve the complexity and growth implied by self-actualization: “Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi, freedom enables an individual to determine the content of their consciousness and affords them the ability to direct its course. It enables us to subjectively and selectively tune our attention and actions and create new (consciousness) content; without which we would only act upon the content of our consciousness instinctively. He cautioned that control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized for doing so would render it ineffective to the intentions it is designed for.
Carse in Finite and infinite games remarked that each human is the genius of itself and is driven by a force originating from within.
The strivings of the human purpose are of untold reaches, and unique in every individual, based on their continued expression, exploration, understanding and realization of higher forms of themselves; health, love, freedom, wholeness, growth, play, and happiness.
These aspects, in spite of being codified in law, in books of the word and all other manner of books, in their genuine human sense remain unintelligible. And as of the myriad of ways in which individuals may express themselves, these writings, have largely served as inhibitions and impediments.
Yet, the possibilities of being human, of expression, as Thoreau noted in Walden are innumerable, “as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center.” He convincingly made his case: “the life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others.” His conclusion thus was that a human is too high-born to give up the expression of his being, in order to become utility for others and their tools.
Self expression is an inherent and inexhaustible aspect of the human purpose. There is no need to appeal to interest or coerce action or expression or the strivings of the human purpose, as long as it resonates with the aspects of the human purpose for the respective individual. Dewey succinctly noted that “the genuine principle of interest is the principle of the recognized identity of the fact or proposed line of action with the self; that it lies in the direction of the agent’s own self-expression and is therefore, imperiously demanded, if the agent is to be himself. Let this condition of identification once be secured, and we neither have to appeal to sheer strength of will nor do we have to occupy ourselves with making things interesting to the child.”
To be and become more of what they are capable, individuals must be left to their own human faculties to determine for themselves at each moment in life, the manner in which they might express their being and becoming.
If the human purpose is a striving for self-actualization, for happiness, for freedom, for health, for love, for wholeness, and so on, then, we can deduct, unsurprisingly, that it may not necessarily be directed towards productivity, but play. For individuals engaged in the strivings of the human purpose, primarily both the source and end of an activity partaken are in the self.
I use the term play out of ignorance for lack of a better term to describe what happens during the strivings of the human purpose. It seemingly appears to an observer that an individual is mostly acting towards an externally un-observable, undirected goal, in which case it is ignorantly said that the individual is playing, where even play itself is not thought of as an important goal, but as something that should not accompany work but may only be experienced after work.
Typically, work has been depicted as the opposite of play. It involves an acting hellbent on the production of some material good without little if any concern for the strivings of the human purpose. In the context of the human purpose, while play is primarily concerned with the strivings of the human purpose, work is chiefly concerned with productivity. When work is aligned with the strivings of the human purpose it becomes one and the same with play.
For individuals engaged in the human purpose strivings, work is one and the same with play. It is simultaneously an expression of the self, a striving for freedom, for growth, for happiness, for holism, for love and as a side effect productive in its own right. Maslow concluded that such individuals enjoy being productive, as it comes naturally and automatically for them as the liver secretes bile; they do not have to be manipulated or coerced into it.
Csikszentmihalyi’s stance was that more than anything else, human beings strive for happiness, for its own sake, with other goals such as beauty, money, or power are valued only because they are expected to bring forth happiness.
He went on to describe happiness, not as something that happens, or that can be bought, or commanded, but a condition that must individually be prepared for, cultivated and defended. In other words, happiness may only be achieved by being fully involved in every detail of one’s life. Only then can one experience happiness — “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like” — as a side effect of an individual’s dedication in the pursuit of a difficult but worthwhile goal. Happiness, as implied occurs as an accompaniment to an activity, such as in a striving for self-actualization, for play, for wholeness, for health, for love and so on.
We may also consider a certain kind of pleasure as happiness, the kind experienced during contact with an external stimuli when it serves in maintaining homeostasis or an order in consciousness as suggested by Csikszentmihalyi. He noted a variant pleasure which marks passivity: receptivity or dependence on external suggestion — for instance, the use of drugs — which neither helps maintain homeostasis nor brings about growth in the being as it dulls human capacities and dimensions. This latter type of pleasure is not implicated in the striving for happiness. In any case, it results in atrophy; a weakening of the respective individual’s capacities and dimensions.
Love is another aspect that defines the human purpose. And with similar difficulty as with the other aspects, it remains largely elusive. Do we even know what love is?
Human relations, if considered on a continuum at one end tend towards love: parent-child, sexual, friendship, and neighborliness and at the other end, toward contempt and hate: proximal separation, slavery, enmity, and ethnocentrism. These latter ones do not foster the striving for health, happiness, play, wholeness, growth and fulfillment, self-expression or freedom. On the contrary, they delay and inhibit the striving and realization of fuller humanity for parties on both ends, begetting sickness, stress, and psychosis; which in themselves increase the incapacity to love and be loved.
Regarding various relational aspects, Maslow wrote that “belongingness, respect, protection, love, security, self-esteem, […] cannot be satisfied by trees, mountains or even dogs; only from healthy relations with other human beings. It is also, only, to other human beings that we can give these in the fullest measure.”
The aspects of the human purpose imply a striving for health. The very acts of striving for growth, love, freedom, expression, wholeness, play; expressing and challenging one’s capacities and dimensions, the striving for fulfillment and happiness strongly suggest a striving for health. Another factual process through which the human body strives for health is the continuous regeneration of cells. Cancer is but one possible outcome whenever this process, for whatever reason, goes out of balance.
According to Maslow, any true need gratification tends toward the improvement, strengthening, and healthy development of the individual. He went on to suggest that most psychopathology results from the suppression, frustration or twisting of the human purpose strivings. In other words, any phenomenon that does not afford the experience of and striving for happiness, health, and self-expression results in atrophy of the human capacities and dimensions. Inescapably, this creates a society of sick and maladjusted individuals.
- Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row, New York, 1990.