Why Relationships, Recreation, and Emotional Well-Being Don’t Function Properly as a Central Purpose

Goal Setting, Series: Central Purpose

In the previous article, I opined that only a productive purpose can serve as a a central purpose. Before going deeper into the positive point, I’d like to address some common questions.

People ask, why not make recreation or relationships or emotional well-being your central purpose? For example, why can’t a retiree have as his central purpose “playing golf” or “spend time with grandchildren”? Or why can’t a younger person choose as his purpose “to be happy”?

The short answer is that none of these will create both the deep meaning and the deep sense of accomplishment that come from pursuing a productive goal in a value-oriented way. I will explain each in turn.

Why relationships can’t serve as a central purpose

Other people and your relationships with them are a huge important part of your life. Why can’t relationships be your central purpose?

It depends what you mean by it.

You can have a productive goal that involves other people such as a service goal. My central purpose is a service goal. I create material values and find people who want to use them to learn. Similarly, if you were very interested in your family, you could set a goal to document your entire family tree. But here, too, you would be creating a material value in the form of an information product. Most relationships involve creating material values together (cooperation) or making ideas objective (communication).

To go back to the motherhood example, the mother who wants to create a safe place in which her toddler can develop values is creating something real: a home with physical objects arranged in a particular way, routines that have been developed, conscious policies for how to support the child. The mother — with help from the father for sure — literally creates the universe the toddler lives in. That is productive work.

Such goals obviously involve relationships, but the relationship is not the goal — it is the motivation for setting the goal. 

Qua relationship, no goals can be set per se. That is because every individual person is an end in him or herself.

Consider the case of a relationship based on affection. What do we mean by your “relationship” with someone? It is his value to you. From an emotional perspective, it is that you love him. “Love” is the emotion that proceeds from the recognition that something is a value. It follows from your thoughts about the person, which are something like, “Here is an irreplaceable value. I am so glad this person is here on the earth. I want this person in my life.” There is no goal there. There is just contemplation of a value. Love does not involve an action component per se.

In other words, you do not make a person into the object of your love. He or she shapes his own soul; you look at what he has become and respond to it.

The hackneyed demand to “love me for myself” is confused. Love is the emotion that proceeds from the contemplation of a value. If he doesn’t value you for yourself, his feeling is not love.

Of course, not all relationships are love relationships. Some are “transactional.” A better term is “cooperative.”

When you are in a healthy cooperative relationship, such as teacher/student, employer/ employee, co-team members, etc., what brings you together is a common goal. You want to create something that cannot be achieved by either of you alone. In this context, what you want from the other people involved is the most creative, most independent, most honest, most rational use of their minds to contribute effort to the common goal.

But this is not something that can be accomplished by you. You cannot make them think. You cannot make them take rational steps. Rationality requires one’s own use of reason. Logically, it is always wrong to set as a goal to make someone else do something. Morally it is improper.

To the extent that you do attempt to coerce or manipulate another person, you are trying to sidestep their minds and shut down their thinking process. When you do this, whether by a criminal act or by an attempt to deceive them into acting against their best judgment, you become, in fact, the person’s enemy.

The only proper way to influence other people’s behavior is through rational persuasion. When you objectively communicate what you see as the means to your shared goal, you often make it easier for them to see with their own minds the benefit of taking the step you want them to take. And, of course, when you are transparent, they are happy to speak up and point out any flaws in your reasoning so that you get the benefit of their knowledge and experience. Great leaders are always great communicators.

Notice here, too, that the goal is not to create the relationship. The relationship is a side effect of your joint action toward a goal.

Why recreation doesn’t serve as a central purpose

Recreation is a somewhat different story. Of course, your central purpose can involve activities that others think of as recreation. You can be a professional athlete or singer, but then you are producing material values and doing productive work. You are part of the entertainment industry.

But if you’re retired, why can’t you set as your central purpose to play golf or some other recreational activity? Well, of course, you can, and it will have some benefits, but it just won’t have the integrating power of a central purpose involving productive work.

Recreation can have some integrating power. If you plan your whole life around golf games or the like, you will simplify everyday decision-making by clarifying your top priority.

But this is the least of the benefits of a productive central purpose. Recreation won’t help you solve the problem of survival, it won’t ensure your days add up to something important, and it won’t fill up your emotional reservoirs with the conviction you are able to live and worthy of living.

Recreation doesn’t do these because it is necessarily divorced from the productive work needed to survive. Recreation is “activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.” Qua recreation, it is the opposite of work; it is a break from work. Even if you are retired, there is a fair amount of productive work you need to do. You need to get meals, keep the house clean, pay bills. These will become less meaningful and integrated if you try to make recreation your central purpose. Everyday life will be a chore.

Moreover, if you do accomplish some long-term goal, like win some tournament or get your score to a certain level, it will be meaningless once you’ve reached it. It will be something you’ve done, not something that gives meaning to your life. Instead of ensuring you make visible progress across the years of your life, recreation as your central purpose will pretty much guarantee you get stuck in the short-run, focusing on one game at a time without any deeper meaning.

What is a life without meaning? I know someone who focused only on recreation in his later years. He had some temporary zeal to accomplish certain milestones, but once they were achieved, games and the like became a way of “killing time.” Those are his words, not mine. What a tragedy that is.

Recreation is inherently short-range and ephemeral. When people want to set a recreation goal as their central purpose, I think they really want to set emotional well-being as their central purpose, and they think that they can get that from recreation because it’s fun. That is a different kind of mistake.

Why setting emotional well-being as your goal is a contradiction

I wrote about the error of setting to “be happy” or “feel good” as your goal in another article, but it’s worth reviewing the main point here.

The emotional system is designed to alert you to values that are at stake right now, meaning that the action you take right now will determine whether or not you gain and keep them.

One kind of emotions alerts you to threats. Most of these feel bad — fear, anger, guilt, frustration. But you want to feel these feelings so that you get the feedback that one of your values is threatened. You want this early warning indicator so you can go protect your values!

The other kind of emotions alerts you to values available to you. These emotions generally feel good (joy, pride, confidence, love). But not all do. Grief is an emotion that alerts you to a value that you have already lost. There is no threat — there is nothing to avoid. The damage is done. But you do need to mourn a lost value. You need to honor the value you lost, and see how you can gain similar values in the future. And you need to understand how your life has changed as a result of your loss. This comes under the heading of embracing reality.

So it makes no sense to prefer some emotions over others. They are all life-giving information. In practice, the only way to get control over your emotions is to shut them all down in repression. I hope you know that is a disaster.

The deeper problem with setting emotional well-being as a goal is that it is a reversal of cause and effect. Happiness and its components (joy, pride, confidence) only come from objective achievements. These feelings come from your achieving your values. Values are not innate. You have to choose them.

In Galt’s Speech Ayn Rand says,

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living.

When you choose a central purpose, you are choosing the achievements that will constitute the source of your happiness. This is a basic choice of life direction, which cannot be defaulted on if you want to be happy.

With this, the third article in the series, I hope you see that the idea that a central purpose needs to be a productive undertaking is not a one-dimensional, isolated claim. It is a fundamental conclusion that integrates many lines of reasoning.

There is more to say on this topic. This series, which was originally conceived as a four-part article, looks like it will be at least a five-parter. In the next installment, I will explain how you find and commit to a central purpose. A key step in that process is conceptualizing your goal in a completely value-oriented way.

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