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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 20, 2007

if it feels good...

My musings yesterday about Abraham Maslow's psychological ideas were prompted by thoughts about motivation, or more generally: why do we do what we do?

As long as you don't look at it too closely, the question seems simple. I'm hungry, so I go into the kitchen to pull a slice of cold pizza out of the fridge and eat it. And yes that is simple: an instance of keeping one of the most basic survival needs satisfied. Without food, you can't pursue your other goals for very long. Before long, more and more of your attention and effort will be applied to the problem of getting fed, until that becomes the first, last, and only thing on your mind, and all of your ingenuity and effort are bent on it.

As we satisfy those more basic needs and move up Maslow's hierarchy, our behavior becomes more subtle and indirect. The higher needs involve other people, first singly, then as groups. The needs for belonging and esteem are social needs that can only be satisfied by numbers of people around us, each of whom is an individual and must be treated in an individualized way. You can't just go to people and say, "respect me" or "esteem me", and expect them to comply. On the contrary, you'll lower yourself in their esteem by doing so. Respect and esteem are gained only by reading the norms of one's society accurately, and consistently directing one's behavior to meet or exceed those norms.

At least, that's my first stab at suggesting how to gain respect and esteem--the need for which, according to Maslow, is innate for us all.

But, as I mentioned yesterday, Maslow was interested most of all in the needs that exist in us beyond those innate "deficiency" needs (D-needs): the holes in us that we try to fill up in order to feel healthy. When they're all (more or less) full, we're free to pursue our "being" needs (B-needs), which are unique to each of us. Just as our face and our fingerprint are unique, our purpose on Earth and our path to maximum fulfillment and self-expression are unique. I cannot follow your path and find fulfillment for myself; you cannot follow mine. We might travel together for a way, but at some point we must part company and go our own way.

And how do we know which is our own way? According to Maslow, our path is essentially the path of enjoyment. What we truly enjoy is our path forward to unique personal fulfillment.

Isn't this just the old 1960s ethos of, "if it feels good, do it"?

Well, yes, it is. But won't that just lead to a society of blissed-out drug addicts? Everyone getting their rocks off every which way? No, it won't.

Why not? Because (by the way, this is me talking, not Maslow--at least, as far as I know, being only 40% of the way through this first book!) being a drug addict is not really enjoyable. It might feel good to get high, but if one gets out of control with it, consequences ensue that feel very un-good. I remember the addiction expert Vern Johnson's description of the difference between the proto-addict and the non-addict. When the non-addict wakes up with his hangover, and is confronted with the fact that while drunk he embarrassed people by, say, hitting clumsily on the hostess, he feels remorse and resolves never to let that happen again. The proto-addict, on the contrary, rationalizes his behavior, or simply doesn't believe that he did anything wrong. In short, he resorts to the defense mechanism of denial--laying the groundwork for hanging on to his addiction.

The addict is stuck, with an ever-thickening wall of denial between himself and the misery of his existence. He has become estranged from himself, and clutches at short-term physical gratification as a compensation for having lost the path to his own actual enjoyment of life.

The kind of enjoyment that Maslow really means is the enjoyment of the "peak experience"--an event that particularly interested him. He conducted surveys, asking people questions about their experience at the most wonderful moments of their lives--times when they had felt most happy, joyous, and fulfilled. Everyone (or almost everyone) has such experiences in their lives, but people on the path of self-actualization--those attending to their B-needs--have them more often, and also regularly exhibit many of the mental traits that the rest of us take on only during those peak experiences.

I want to tune in to the wavelength of my own enjoyment of life. As I go about my day, I check my response to what I'm doing: how do I feel about it? Really, honestly? When I do certain things, I think, Yes, this is what I want to be doing; this is what I enjoy.

Writing is one of those. Even with the difficult struggle of a large, uncertain creative project, I still feel that it's what I want to be doing. If I were doing something else, no matter how "exciting" or rewarding in other ways (such as, say, financially), I would feel that was playing hooky. Something would nag at me, urging me to get back to what I want to be doing.

I feel the same way about reading. When I sit there with my highlighter, reading, I feel that I'm doing the right thing--right for me. I feel natural, at home, and I enjoy myself. For me, that's exciting.

In reading I also feel a big difference between different books. When I feel a book is not really taking me where I want to go--is not part of my path--I get a feeling of distaste and revulsion. Reading starts feeling like forced labor. Now, when I start feeling that, I put the book aside. That's why I leave so many books unfinished.

So that's today's hot tip: If it feels good, do it.

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  • Hi Mr Vitols,

    It's so exciting to find you online! I was an ardent fan of the Odyssey 15 years ago or so, and have fond memories of it.

    It's refreshing to find you still write lucidly & well, and on a variety of topics.

    Thank you for writing such a masterpiece. I really enjoyed watching it, and found it to be incredibly relevant to my life & who I was.

    I've always been curious to know more--about the inspiration behind elements of the show, about the overall vision, and just about the basic mechanics of the story, but there isn't much online. Can you direct me to interviews or other supplementary information? Are the original outlines used available somewhere?

    If you have any direction you can point me in, I would really appreciate it. I felt like the show explained itself, and concluded appropriately, but always did want to see the origins & the inspirations regardless. I have a fair idea how things could have progressed for the people in upworld & downworld, but was always curious more about the real-life situation around the filming/the end of the series/etc. It seemed to go out on a cliffhanger, and I wondered if this was deliberate, or if the budget was cut--and if so, what was in the works for the future?

    Thank you very much--

    By Blogger David Streever, at December 26, 2007 12:49 PM  

  • As for Maslow:

    I'm currently reading Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar--it's not a self-help book or anything--it's the primer from the most popular class at Harvard, on happiness.

    What you were saying about Maslow's theories re: filling needs (b & d) is what made me think of Tal Ben-Shahar. He writes extensively about having goals but not looking toward fulfillment--not seeing happiness as the end of a journey, but rather a way of existing--or as you say, enjoyment--doing what makes you happy.

    He's not speaking about hedonism, but about intelligent decisions to do the things you enjoy, while holding long & short term goals as well.

    It's pretty fascinating, though I'm assuming you have neither read nor heard of it--if this is the case, you can see it at amazon.com here:

    He was on NPR a month ago or so, you can probably find him in the wnpr.org archives.

    By Blogger David Streever, at December 26, 2007 3:55 PM  

  • Hello David. Thanks very much for your appreciative and informative comments. Always welcome.

    Thanks for the tip about Happier--I may take a look at that.

    As for The Odyssey, I'll see if I can come up with something useful to say. There are a few websites still out there with some material on it, though nothing of an "insider" naure as far as I know. There are a couple of groups on Facebook devoted to the show, but it's mainly old-time fans reminscing.

    I will no doubt post more about the creation of the show.

    Be careful what you wish for, though: TV, like sausages and laws, is made of things that you might not want to either eat or be ruled by...

    Many thanks for stopping by.

    By Blogger paulv, at December 26, 2007 4:02 PM  

  • Hi Paul,

    I always am careful in my wishes ;-) Mostly, it's just curiosity here. It's been about 15 years since I saw the Odyssey, and no matter what I learn, I can guarantee I won't be upset about it!

    I'm a creative professional--I see the truth behind the things I create, no matter my intentions--I'd love to know what went on in the creation of the odyssey, even if it's not something that validates my memories! I watched the Odyssey at a meaningful time in my life, and I'd really love to see what drove it.

    Thanks so much--anything you share or post will be very welcome!

    My thanks--

    By Blogger David Streever, at December 26, 2007 10:27 PM  

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