Technically at least, the terms "spontaneous" and "impulsive" are synonyms. But only rarely can they be used interchangeably. "Spontaneity" is infused with all sorts of positive connotations. Impulsivity? Just the opposite. This post will explore how "blessed" are those free to act spontaneously; and how "bedeviled," "accursed," or "ill-fated" (comparatively speaking) are those driven to behave impulsively. Those others, unable or unwilling to act in ways either spontaneous or impulsive, are in a class of their own--not "blessed," not "bedeviled," but not very happy or fulfilled either.
In distinguishing among synonyms, dictionaries typically don't focus on just how favorable each word's connotations are. Still, to describe "spontaneity" (e.g., as does The American Heritage Dictionary) as applying to that which "arises naturally rather than resulting from external constraint or stimulus," and then to exemplify the term with a quote by Woodrow Wilson--"The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people"--makes it obvious that the term is meant to be viewed positively. Contrast this with the same dictionary characterizing "impulsivity" as " . . . a sudden urge or feeling not governed by reason," and offering as an example to illuminate its usage: "Buying a car was an impulsive act that he immediately regretted."
Ultimately, as I continue to elaborate on the pivotal differences between these two terms, it should become increasingly obvious how each has psychological ramifications worthy of the most careful consideration. Although they may both have embedded in them the notion of "without conscious thought," impulsive behavior clearly implies thoughtless behavior (i.e., behavior that's heedless, ill-advised, or irrational) in a way that spontaneous behavior does not. In fact, as I'll discuss more in the second part of this three-part post, there's a fairly complicated thought process underlying spontaneous behavior that no one (to my knowledge, at least) has ever adequately addressed. And it's a process that all of us might aspire to--for it represents, I think, a crucial aspect of optimal mental functioning.
But first, let me expand further on the essential differences between these two terms, so similar on the surface, yet so far apart--or distinct--in their essential meanings.
Spontaneous behavior is performed "without any constraint, effort, or premeditation." It's thereby understandable as "unplanned" or "impromptu" (Webster's New World Dictionary/WNYThesaurus). And so we can talk about a "spontaneous demonstration" or "spontaneous laughter or applause." It's altogether natural, and in a good way; it's not anything that needs to be constrained or controlled. Although a spontaneous act may be impromptu, unconscious, or casual, it's generally seen as safe--rather than precarious. That is, we're not very likely to talk about the "dangers," or the "destructiveness," of acting spontaneously.
Impulsive behavior, on the other hand, is prompted behavior, whether by "some external incitement or sudden inner inclination" (Webster's New World Thesaurus). It's impelled--or better, driven--in a way that spontaneous behavior isn't. As such, induced by some sort of outward or internal passion, pressure or appetite, it bypasses--or may even "hijack"--our more rational faculties. Inevitably, then, such behavior exposes us to risk, puts our welfare in jeopardy. This is why we don't hear of a person's being told to behave more impulsively--though it's hardly uncommon for someone to be advised to act more spontaneously.
In fact, when we suggest that someone act more spontaneously, what's implied is that it would benefit them to adapt more readily to changing circumstances--in a word, become more flexible. In a sense we're telling them to trust themselves more, to have more confidence in their ability to appropriately do something without first having to mull it over.
Contrariwise, impulsive behavior is typically regarded as untrustworthy. It's behavior that is not well considered--it's hasty. Dictionaries describe it as "sudden" and "involuntary"--as in, "exploding with anger," which implies the possibility of a recklessness totally absent from characterizations of spontaneity. With impulsiveness, it's as though some force from deep within is pushing us to do something that may well run counter to our best interests. So we might describe someone with a serious shopping addiction as "an impulsive (or compulsive) spender," whereas it probably wouldn't occur to us to depict that person's spending as "spontaneous."
It's hardly coincidental, then, that the term impulsive is so frequently associated with addiction--or that addicts themselves are regularly described as having "poor impulse control." We don't talk about addicts' acting spontaneously because such a characterization could possibly suggest some underlying circumspection or judgment that, typically, they're sadly lacking in.
In earlier posts, I've referred to most addictive behaviors as motivationally regressive (or childlike), regarding them as attempts (however unconscious or symbolic) to get unmet childhood dependency needs taken care of in the present. Whether these needs are for soothing, succor, safety, support, or anything else, when current feelings of emptiness or deprivation clamor for attention, the powerful impulse to gratify these needs right now can be well-nigh irresistible. And carrying out such an impulse can also be in total disregard for the possible inappropriateness, or harmfulness, of the behavior.
Note: Part 2 of this post will consider additional aspects of impulsiveness vs. spontaneity. Most importantly, it will focus on where spontaneous behavior comes from, why it can be trusted--and why, in fact, we'd all benefit from cultivating it. Part 3 will demonstrate why living a life that's neither spontaneous nor impulsive represents another problem altogether, while part 4 will deal with the relationship between spontaneity and creativity. Finally, part 5 will discuss the crucial links between spontaneity and happiness.