Work as an Extrinsic Goal, Play as an Internal Goal

Gut Feeling

I struggle with depression and anxiety, specifically social anxiety. I get nervous around strangers to mild degrees and find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know well. Even people who I sort of know, I can be awkward or not know exactly how to respond to whatever is going on. This is in part caused also by me having aspergers and not understanding social cues or the “proper” ways to interact with others.

Even twenty years or so ago, knowing all of this would be fairly unique. I’d have to have gone through lots of official channels and processes with doctors and other assorted specialists. I may have to have medicine or some other sort of treatment to really “see” if I have it or not. Maybe if I was really lucky I could get it confirmed by other folks who felt similarly in a sort of “group therapy” type deal.

What’s changed a lot of these things is, naturally, the internet.

And not just the internet but its ability to enhance the former goals. Making doctors more accessible or at least their diagnoses more accessible, if nothing else. Making medicine more understandable to lower-class people and making information on them more accessible to most folks. It also makes group therapy sessions much more accessible as well.

Whether this has led to the dramatic rise in mental illness or not, I’m not sure. But according to Twenge, et. al (2010) this rise in mental illness can’t be reduced to better diagnoses skills. Further, according to them it can’t be reduced to things like economic shifts either.

Instead, Twenge, et. al. discuss “extrinsic goals” and “internal goals” (also see a relevant 2004 study by them here), that is to say goals that are outside of us (i.e. money, fame, social status more generally, etc.) or inside of us (health, happiness, connection, etc.).

I have mixed feelings about this explanation.

The problem with this study (among other things) is it’s low sample rate, the fact that it conflates individualism with narcissism and tends to treat desires for external things as prima facie suspect or worthy of criticism. The data mostly relies on surveys of college students and thus seems inapplicable to most of the general population. In addition, one of the questions about college students feeling like they want to be “well off” in their future is simply taken to be money.

But that seems like an overly simplistic way of interpreting that. Sure, people like money and affluence but it seems fallacious to me to reduce that to only wanting money or things external to us. Doesn’t the phrase “well off” mean more than that? If someone had a lot of money but was chronically depressed, sick and friendless would we call them “well off”? Perhaps some would minimize their misfortune, given their financial affluence, but it probably wouldn’t be accurate to call this person “well off” in a more holistic sense.

Regardless, the study isn’t without merit.

For one thing, it’s certainly true that many people submit their individuality to external goals. I wouldn’t deny that this is something that has potentially grown in the last few decades or so. But I would deny that this is from any sort of coherent or meaningful sense of “individualism”. I mean, if your sense of individuality involves subsuming your individuality for things like status, external rewards such as money, etc. then I can only suggest your conception of individualism isn’t terribly robust.

I know some of my readers may have a foundational opposition to money per se’ and I want to make it clear that this isn’t where I’m coming from. I don’t think the problem is money itself so much as our social relation to it. Currently, we have a giant organization, called the government, that prints and distributes currency. This leads to all sort of problems that come along with having monopolies in your economy such as inefficient use of resources (see: the penny) and creating dependence.

This dependence is related to work as well, which gets us into a discussion of play.

Writing for Psychology Today, Peter Gray links this rise in depression and anxiety to a decline in play:

Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests. This has been the theme of many of my previous posts. (See, for example, the series of posts on “The Value of Play.”) In fact, play, by definition, is activity controlled and directed by the players; and play, by definition, is directed toward intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals

By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.

Here, Gray is making the link between intrinsic control and play. If Twenge, et. al. (2010 and 2004) are correct about the lack of intrinsic valuation and goals in the past few decades or so then it stands to reason that the continuing decline of play may be related.

I actually think, as much as I’d love (in some sense) that Gray was completely right, that his evidence is shaky, at best. For reasons briefly mentioned before, I think Twenge, et. al. are making a bit of reach on some of their data and I think Gray may be considering their data too strongly relevant to how strongly it should be taken.

Nevertheless, Gray’s input on this matter is relevant and welcomed by me. And it’s certainly true, as Gray points out, that coercive schooling gets in the way of children’s intrinsic goals. There was even some research on this back in 2003 about happiness and children.

And as Gray notes,

A few years ago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter conducted a study of happiness and unhappiness in public school students in 6th through 12th grade.[7] Each of 828 participants, from 33 different schools in 12 different communities across the country, wore a special wristwatch for a week, programmed to provide a signal at random times between 7:30 am and 10:30 pm. Whenever the signal went off participants filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment.

The lowest levels of happiness by far (surprise, surprise) occurred when children were at school, and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school and conversing or playing with friends. Time spent with parents fell in the middle of the range. Average happiness increased on weekends, but then plummeted from late Sunday afternoon through the evening, in anticipation of the coming school week.

All of this seems very intuitively plausible to me. I’m not sure how effective you can really measure “happiness”, but on the other hand I’m not a researcher, nor do I specialize in happiness or researching it. But based on personal experience and anecdotal experience Gray’s theory seems at least possible if nothing else. I just think he needs better, more and stronger evidence to keep backing him up.

This differentiation of “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” goes back to one of my major points: “Work” as I define it (and have been defining it for a while) is the physical or mental activity that involves you subsuming your individuality for some external reward. Right there, I’m discussing the “extrinsic goals” that Twenge, et. al. (including Gray) are discussing.

Play, on the other hand, is based on intrinsic goals. If someone doesn’t want to play then it by definition no longer acts as play but a sort of work. Maybe this work is moderately better than being stuck in an office but do you know many kids who, when forced by their parents to play sports, spoke positively of it?

So I think there’s a lot going on here that’s useful for the anti-work perspective. Hopefully, as society moves more and more towards leisure and play we can become much more robust individualists. Ones who hate work, encourage intrinsic goals and can live happier and healthier lives.

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3 thoughts on “Work as an Extrinsic Goal, Play as an Internal Goal

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