By Roland Watson

I'm going to finish off this series, on the human species, by making some final points about our needs and motivations. In the last article, I explored human procreation and the motivation of sex. This is an extremely important motivation for us, but we have others as well.

Human motivations

Another way to think of a motivation is as a want, or desire. We need food, as it is necessary for survival, but we want sex, above and beyond any purpose it fulfills to satisfy our procreation instinct.

Said another way, a need is something that we have to have. A want is in some way optional. For example, some people, such as monks and nuns, and others who have embarked on a spiritual quest, abstain from sexual contact. They do not need or even want sex. For them, happiness is accomplished through abstinence and meditation, and the satisfaction that their way of life brings.

What is happiness?

I have just introduced something new - happiness - that strictly is neither a need nor a want. Happiness is a higher or all-encompassing motivation. It seems what humans really want is to be happy.

But, of course, with people it is never that simple. There are different types of happiness. There is happiness in the moment, or transient pleasure, which relates largely to satisfying our basic needs, and senses. And, there is the enduring happiness, or contentment, that we get from achieving our higher needs, including for creative expression, love, and understanding.

So, happiness it is: the final purpose, and measuring scale, of human existence. Well, that's one way to look at it.

I will consider some other views as well, throughout the University of Life. For instance, some cynics have stated that the real driving force of life is not the quest for happiness, but merely the avoidance of boredom.

The role of fear

In addition to happiness, humans have two other overriding motivations, the first of which is to avoid fear. Indeed, this is one of the leading factors behind our drive for control. We want to control the circumstances of our life, to make it less fearful.

This in turn leads to a penchant for risk-averse behavior, which can become a habit, and which is in many ways self-defeating. Life is dangerous, and based on free will and chance. Living such that you improve your odds is one thing. Living such that you try to escape from chance entirely is another.

In any case, it is impossible to escape from chance. For example, risk-aversion is the greatest factor in the human tendency to exhibit pack behavior. We do what everyone else is doing, since they must know what they're doing, right?

But, of course, it is often the case that no one knows what they are doing. Or, perhaps one person has an idea, such as Hitler, and in our pack behavior we give this person the power he or she needs to realize it.

Avoidance of fear, risk-averse behavior, and the collective yielding of our will - of the power over our lives to those individuals most desirous of leadership - is the series of linkages that has fueled some of our worst problems. By seeking to avoid them, we actually increase the chances that they will occur.

Power, power, power

As this reflects, the last aspect of our seeking to control our circumstances and environment, to better our chances of survival, is our motivation to accumulate and exercise power. Unfortunately, now that the battle for survival has in many ways been won - witness the greatly increased life expectancies worldwide - the drive for power has taken on a life of its own.

Power as a social phenomenon is complex. There are different types of power, and it has different sources and uses.

- There is physical power - by force, from one person all the way through to an entire army.
- There is political power, including both legitimate - democratic - and not.
- There is legal power, through the law and the decisions of courts.
- There is economic power, where you buy influence.
- And finally, there is psychological power, where you are able to control another person by mental manipulation, including through the use of both fear and sex.

Nowadays, it seems that people want as much power as they can get, and that they will do anything to obtain it.

Power enables you to dominate and manipulate the less powerful. Furthermore, the greater the power, the greater your ability to dominate. Indeed, according to George Orwell again, this time from his book 1984, ultimate power lies "in inflicting pain and humiliation ... in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing."

Finally, power is addictive, and it corrupts. Once you get some, you never want to give it up, and your tendency is to want more and more.

A world where the dominant motivation is the desire to accumulate and wield power, is an awesome and fearful prospect. This appears to be our world.


I will close this introduction of our species with a few additional points about our needs.

First, our needs change as we age. Young people are more concerned with sex; the elderly with security and survival.

This also reflects differences in how we prioritize our needs. For instance, we saw that childbearing may be of more importance to women than to men.

Prioritization in turn raises the issue of tradeoffs. Working to satisfy one need may limit your ability to fulfill another. For example, you can have many sexual partners, or strive to create an enduring love with one person.

Also, there is a conflict between the need for social involvement and the need for personal creative expression. You can work hard to have a lot of friends, or to become a group leader, or you can work hard to develop your own ideas, style of expression, and art. A commitment to originality regularly requires extensive solitude, if only to filter out distractions and other influences.

Lastly, needs evolve, and not only with age, but also in the context of society. The needs of individuals in modern society are in many ways different from those of people in traditional communities. We have already seen that many modern needs are socially imposed, including the need for consumption above and beyond the basic requirements of life; and, as I have just described, in the prominence that the desire for power, and its offshoots, money and success, has achieved.

In the next series, I will examine modern society.

© Roland Watson 2014