Why we do what we do

I have the next week off work as annual leave. I have no plans, and no real thoughts about what to do with my time. I have a couple of reports to write and could bake something but other than that, because we can’t go very far due to lockdown, no other real thoughts about what to do. That got me thinking about why we do what we do (or not).

You could take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and work through that systematically, but does that cover it? Yes, there are some basic needs that ought to be addressed: the need for food, shelter, sleep, company etc. We need our elements of security around employment, health and some material belongings. There is certainly a need for friendship, family, love and a sense of connection. But then we get on to the things that you could argue we don’t NEED, we just WANT. Respect, recognition, strength, and then self-actualisation – to be the best we can be.

There’s another school of thought that suggests a different solution to why we do what we do.

A sense of obligation – to share experience and knowledge, the obligation to serve others. A sense of duty, and pride – perhaps via volunteerism, a call to action, pride in a job well done and our want to succeed. We should be wary of the vice like self intention, cunningly disguised as “being in our best interests”, which only really offer temporary pleasure. Acts of kindness and our altruistic love for the benefit of others. Passion for our favourite activity or cause, our desire to do something. The desire to “tick the box”, perhaps something off our bucket list, but could lead on to somewhere else. Our destiny may be coloured by family tradition, a hobby or particular calling that other family members before us have excelled in. Yes, there’s a need to have a sense of fulfilment to keep us energised and empowered through our self-actualisation. But maybe we do it for others, to have something to share or for the “greater good”.

Tony Robbins, an author and podcaster, as well as being a mutli-billion dollar entrepreneur, in his TED Talk and book, describes 6 human needs – certainty, significance, variety, love/connection, growth and contribution – and how each influences our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and actions. By understanding what drives us, we can understand how to meet those needs. The same for people around us, once we know what drives them, we can help them meet their needs too.

At a very fundamental level, I know I need to be safe, secure, independent and have a sense of purpose. The narcissist in me does need some form of appreciation every now and then, but I certainly need feedback to make sure that I’m at least heading in the right direction and to help me achieve some personal growth. I need to be educated. I need to understand things and learn from them. I try to encompass all of that in my working, social and family life and am conscious that I don’t always get it right.


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