I saw a documentary recently about the effects of solitary confinement. It was a pretty fascinating look into the human psyche and what makes us tick. I learned that just three days of solitary confinement has the potential to create irreversible brain damage. Being alone, with no way to interact and engage with our environment, is not just an unpleasant experience, but it’s an experience that in just a few days has the ability to actually cause permanent damage.
This documentary really blew away and also got me thinking. Why would this state of being create such agony and even potentially cause brain damage? What is it about being confined to nothing but our thoughts that creates such a sense of discomfort? Well, I’m not a philosopher per se and I’m certainly not a psychologist, but my own take is that it’s not so much that we’re uncomfortable confronting our inner most thoughts and selves, it’s that we as humans are designed to interact and engage with each other and the world around us. To go even deeper, I think we’re the happiest when we’re engaged in some sort of meaningful pursuit in the world. When we’re deprived of the ability to interact and engage with the world in a meaningful way (as in solitary confinement) we suffer, both mentally and physically.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. “All mammals have this seeking system”, says Panskepp, “wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This means animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves”.
The human desire to seek helps make sense of studies showing that achieving major goals, or even winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness. It’s not so much the fulfillment of goals we’re after, it’s the pursuit of the goal we’re really seeking, as seeking is itself a fulfilling activity. In other words, it’s the journey and not the destination.
I believe this sort of innate desire to seek and create meaning in our lives is deeply connected to goal setting. We need to have aims in life, otherwise we’re just, well, aimless. If we have nothing at all to shoot for, we’re sort of just blowing in the wind, rudderless and without direction.
Sometimes it’s nice to just sort of go with the flow and see what happens. I’ve had periods in my life where I wasn’t particularly goal oriented and was more just sort of open to seeing what life presented to me each day. There’s a time and place for this sort of open-ended exploration, and even when approaching life this way, we’re probably still interacting and engaged with the world, albeit in a less focused way.
But over the long term, I find it more satisfying to have specific long-term goals I’m working towards. I find it simply helps orient my life better. It gives my life a structure and a framework. It helps to lay out a direction and clear path I need to take. It helps me avoid getting into ruts and feeling stuck.
When I’m setting specific goals, for something like music let’s say, it helps dictate the way in which I’ll be interacting with the world. It lays out a self-evident course of action I need to take. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of how I’m going to spend my time. It orients me in the world.
As an example, for 2019 I have the very simple and straightforward goal of creating more music. My main goal, in terms of music, is to simply be more prolific in 2019. I’m already licensing a certain percentage of my tracks and I have connections and people willing to help shop my music in place, so I know that if I do nothing else but focus on creating more music, I’ll be able to increase the income I generate from music.
This one simple goal pretty much spells out how I’ll be spending a good percentage of my time this year. Of course, I’ll be recording more music, so I’ll be spending more time in one of several home studios I record in, working on laying down tracks. I’ll need more help on post production, in order to release more tracks, so I’ve recruited another producer to help with mixing and mastering a percentage of the tracks I release. And I’ll of course need to write more music, so I’ll be spending more time in my home studio, guitar in hand, writing and composing more music.
When we have goals we’re working towards, it helps us engage with the world in a more meaningful and cooperative way. Very few goals can be achieved completely in isolation. Even something like music, which at least in theory can be done alone, requires team work and people working together to get out into the world. And of course, without an audience to listen and appreciate the music we create, it seems sort of pointless. If I could never share my music with anyone other than myself, I doubt I would be very motivated to create it.
In the final analysis, having goals serves much more than just the practical purpose of helping us achieve our desires and make more money. Having and pursuing goals enables us to create meaningful and purposeful lives and stave off apathy and boredom, and in a literal sense, prevent brain damage.
The next time you’re feeling complacent and procrastinating, imagine yourself locked in a completely dark room, completely cut off from the outside world, with only your thoughts to help you pass the time, for days on end. Then, when the inevitable wave of gratitude washes over you, as you realize that’s just a fleeting thought and not your actual situation, get back to work on reaching your goals. Your situation could be much worse.