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The Purpose of Purposelessness (Part 1 of 4)

Surprisingly, it may be wise to pursue what's purposeless.

monalisabodypaintJust What Is Purposelessness Anyway?

Simply put, any behavior that's pleasure-directed--rather than goal-directed--warrants being understood as purposeless. Typically, such behavior is extemporaneous, uncalculated, spontaneous, and objectless. Its motive isn't pragmatic. Nor is it engaged in for any monetary reward. And though it may involve performing for others, such performance is embarked upon for its own intrinsic satisfaction. It's not competitive, and it's not really designed to win anything--or impress anybody. It's entered upon merely for the innocent, diversionary enjoyment of it.

Whenever you undertake an activity solely for itself--when, that is, it's inherently pleasurable for you--it can be seen as purposeless. Because it's not embarked upon to receive others' recognition, or accomplish any preset goal, it's literally pointless. From a utilitarian perspective, it's counter-productive; useless. It simply makes you feel good. And that's the case whether it's talking to people on your wave length (and so a pleasure to share yourself with). Or tossing a ball high in the air to experience the childlike satisfaction of catching it. Or giving yourself the luxury of an extra hour in bed on a lazy Sunday morning. Or playing with--and maybe talking to--your dog, or cat, or hamster (or even stuffed animal). . . . Get the picture?

More Examples of Purposeless Behavior--and Its Benefits

In their book Healthy Pleasures, Robert Ornstein and David Sobel suggestively write about one particular group of pleasurable behaviors as "visual feasts," and their examples are evocative. To paraphrase: gazing at a fish leisurely swimming back and forth in a tank; idly looking out the window at trees and shrubs; watching clouds languorously shaping, and re-shaping, themselves on a blue sky's casually moving canvas; contemplating the still, peaceful surface of a lake; or witnessing birds nesting in a tree. Aware that none of their illustrations depict anything that can nurture our physical bodies, they nonetheless identify such experiences as offering sustenance for our souls. For not only do they favorably change our brain chemistry, they also "help us toward an inner calm and sense of well-being."

So what on one level may seem quite fruitless is, on another, extremely valuable. And these authors have similar things to say about the goal-less behavior of laughter, noting that "hearty laughter is a genial exercise of the body, a form of ‘inner jogging.'" Further elaborating on this description, they add that "a robust laugh gives the muscles of your face, shoulders, diaphragm, and abdomen a good workout . . . and the afterglow is positively relaxing. Blood pressure may temporarily fall to below pre-laugh levels, your muscles go limp, and you bask in a mellow euphoria."

And if laughter and various visual delights are actually good for your organism, so are an almost infinite number of other dispensable, "superfluous" activities. Consider the recreational, non-purpose-driven activities of singing, dancing, listening to your favorite music--or being out in the woods listening to the rhythms and harmonies of nature. Or improvising on a piano, guitar--or any other instrument you might choose to "fool around with." Or drawing, or doodling. Or doing some impromptu play-acting or make- believe (whether by yourself or in front of others).Or--for that matter--anything that might fit under the heading "spontaneous silliness."

So despite being engaged in an activity for its own delightful sake, it's still important to realize its benefits. For such "pointless" behavior can have the most enviable "side-effects." At once it can serve the healthy functions of emotional release, self-expression, self-entertainment, and the hardy restoration of physical, psychological, and spiritual balance. Even though the behavior may be too spontaneous, hastily considered, or even self-indulgent to be perceived as purposeful, that hardly prevents it from having all sorts of positive ramifications.

In their book Pathways to Pleasure: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Optimal Living, addiction experts Harvey Milkman and Stanley Sunderwith talk about the "natural highs" linked to living well. Similar to Ornstein and Sobel, they view such highs as offering a sound and safe way to control brain chemistry. And unlike the maladaptive highs afforded by various addictions, they emphasize how these much healthier alternatives "produce exhilaration devoid of anguish and calm without stupor. . . ."

Stressing how essential it is to have ample pleasure in your life--for if you're feeling dysphoric you're at risk for succumbing to the dis-ease of addiction--they talk about the value of identifying your own unique pleasure orientation. They then proceed to classify the different kinds of activities that people find enjoyable into four broad dimensions. Below are these four dimensions (and note that none of them relies on being productive or purposive):

river raftingPhysical Expression, which includes athletic prowess and challenging nature;
Self-Focus, which encompasses physical fitness, sensuality, soothing sensations, and material comforts;
Aesthetic Discovery, which takes in artistic seeking, adventure, experiencing nature, domestic involvement, reflective relaxation, and stimulation; and
Collective Harmony, which combines the factors of mental exercise, people closeness, religious involvement, and altruistic interests.

Additionally, Milkman and Sunderwith supply a table that delineates no fewer than 84 specific pursuits under the 15 factors that characterize these four basic dimensions. For example, under "challenging nature," they include floating on a raft or camping out; and under "mental exercise," they list word games and crossword puzzles.

Purposeless Behavior vs. Addictive Behavior

It might also be mentioned that the authors' earlier book, Craving for Ecstasy: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape, delineates how easy it is to lose control of your life through pursuing unhealthy, escapist pleasures And this can happen not just by becoming dependent on such substances as marijuana, alcohol, or cocaine, but also with such pursuits as love, sex, gambling, food, exercise, television--even religion. This is where, I think, it's absolutely crucial to distinguish between so-called "purposeless behaviors" (which I see as liberating, not escapist) and addictive practices (which I regard as constricting, and ultimately imprisoning--as well as seriously detrimental to developing any true sense of well-being).

That is, acting purposelessly is totally unrelated to behavior which, more than anything else, represents an essential irresponsibility to the self. Purposeless behavior may at times seem frivolous, but it can actually be creative and self-nurturing. It doesn't begin to compare to the self-destructiveness of addictive behavior, which typically is undertaken in reaction to boredom, anxiety, anger, guilt, or shame--and, almost by definition, subverts the individual's better judgment. (See my post "From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing.")

Moreover, purposeless behavior, unlike the self-damaging hedonism of much addictive behavior, isn't routinely associated with negative consequences. Rather, despite it's not being contrived to achieve anything in particular, the healthy purposelessness I've been discussing is responsible to a fundamental need of the self: the need to play. As such, it has a certain endearing innocence about it (i.e., is far more "childlike" than "childish"). And whereas self-indulgent, addictive behaviors are pleasurable or gratifying in the moment, they ultimately end up being both dysfunctional and self-defeating. Plainly, they're incapable of satisfying our deeper emotional and spiritual needs. Moreover, entered into because of deep frustration and discontent, they typically lead to even higher levels of these negative feeling states.

Finally, regardless of how deliberately chosen any particular addictive behavior might be, virtually all of them deserve to be seen as purposeful. In one way or another, each has been selected to change the addicts' mood, or alter their consciousness. Whether their distressed feelings relate to loneliness, depression, irritability, numbness, deep-seated rage, or intolerable anxiety, none of these emotional states feel good--feel right. So addicts are compelled to imbibe a substance, engage in an activity, or hang onto a disturbed relationship to alleviate such intense inner discomfort. And, of course, this is the dis-ease that addiction specialists understand only too well.

Note: Part 2 of this post will focus on the fascinating interrelationships between "productive" purposelessness and play. Parts 3 and 4, examining the work of Eastern mystic, Osho, will explore the metaphysical and spiritual implications of living a life based on the assumption that the world itself--and so our individual lives, too--are purposeless.

---I invite readers to follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

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