Recently, I have been wondering about familiarity and getting stuck in cycles of doing familiar things, even if they may not be the best for me. It seems as if it is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, it often seems that to experience personal growth, I might have to move out of my comfort zone. This might not always be pleasurable, in fact, at times this might seem like going against my human nature to seek out actions and experiences that I know bring me pleasure. I wonder why I as a human seek pleasure and if always seeking certain types and feelings of pleasure in the same familiar things can hinder my personal development.
Human Nature to Seek Pleasure
Throughout history, both philosophers and psychologists have discussed the idea that it is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Freud wrote that humans have a strong tendency towards fulfilling the ‘pleasure principle’: the idea that the mind itself seeks pleasure wherever it can. The ethical concept of Utilitarianism also finds its foundations in the idea that humans seek pleasure and avoid pain, and that this is the way that many decisions are made. However, as Utilitarian John Stuart Mill suggested, there may be different types and ‘levels’ of pleasure. I wonder if, to grow as a person, I need to learn how to recognise these different pleasures.
We need to take risks and move away from familiar pleasures in order to grow as people
While avoiding potential pain may feel safe and comfortable, staying with the familiar and comfortable may not do me any good. While it may cause me to be ‘happy’, by constantly avoiding potential pain, I am not allowing myself to experience something new that may cause me even more happiness. Experiencing new situations and finding and experiencing other forms of happiness can help us to grow as people.
This is not to suggest that we should go completely against human nature and seek pain. That’s not rational or healthy, and probably won’t help us grow as people. However, letting ourselves experience things that may potentially cause us harm, allowing ourselves to take risks, is another story. Being able to leave behind certainty and what we find familiar is so important. This doesn’t mean that we are going against our human nature. Seeking pleasure in new places is still seeking pleasure. We can find pleasure and happiness, these familiar feelings that we seek, in more than one place. We may need to take risks in order to seek and find these pleasures.
Taking risks and feeling uncomfortable vs Suffering
When I talk about seeking personal development and growth through no longer avoiding pain, I am not suggesting that we can only grow through suffering. While suffering through terrible circumstances can at times lead to growth, it often seems that growth becomes difficult when we are constantly suffering. Our minds, bodies and emotions probably become more focussed on survival.
So, I’m beginning to think that personal growth is more commonly found when there is a lack of the avoidance of pain, and there is more of a potential for risks and perhaps experiencing pain. It happens when I no longer actively avoid pain or move away from the familiar and experiencing feelings of being uncomfortable. When this happens, I am no longer necessarily seeking pleasure, or at least not seeking it in a place that I am familiar with. When I stop intentionally avoiding risks and potential pain, I can allow myself to grow.
Familiar doesn’t mean healthy
When talking about taking risks and moving away from the familiar, I wonder if it is important to understand that what we see as familiar and perceive as being pleasurable to may not actually be healthy. This is especially true if I purposely put myself in situations where I suffer or experience any level of pain just because the situation is familiar. Familiar and comfortable does not mean painless, and if the habit is not broken it can be very hard to grow from this pain. A complicated example of the familiar yet painful becoming a type of habit could be alcohol or drug dependency. The familiar habit is comfortable and becomes much easier than new unknown experiences and can eventually become an addiction.
The need for control
One of the things that stops many of us from allowing ourselves to move away from the familiar and accept risks is a need for control. It’s this idea of ‘If I take risks and move away from the familiar, I am no longer in control’. Many theorists, most prominently Rothbaum et al. in 1982, suggest the existence of two different types of control: Primary Control and Secondary Control. This is a fascinating look at control, and in understanding my own relationship with control.
In simple terms, Primary Control is related to a person’s control over the physical world in order to meet their needs: external control. Primary Control seeks to adapt the environment to the person. Humans strive for Primary Control; this is often further encouraged by society. We like to be able to control when and how events occur through our behaviour. This is often related to long-term goals and to behaviours that lead to tangible, material success. The notion of encouraging the success found through primary control is particularly prominent in our Western Society.
The concept of secondary control can be a little harder to get your head around and there have been many interpretations surrounding the complex parts of Secondary Control, Secondary Control is related to a person’s control over their mental state, emotions and motivations: internal control. The general consensus is that it is the simultaneous adjusting of the self and acceptance of the environment.
Although we may not be able to fully exercise primary control when taking risks, we can learn to understand our environment and adjust ourselves in accordance to this. In this way, we can let ourselves change and grow internally. It seems that, in adapting myself, I might be able to gain better control over my environment. Therefore, although we may not see ourselves as being in control, in exercising Secondary Control, you can both grow as a person and regain some control over how we respond to our current environment.
Primary and Secondary Control in the West
In the Western World, we are often encouraged to take control of our surroundings to be successful. It seems as if this is often related to a fear of failure, and therefore a need to control our environment in order not to fail. Exercising ‘Secondary Control’ can help us to deal with these feelings of failure and to learn and grow from these mistakes. We can learn to self-reflect and understand our so-called failures in a different, perhaps healthier, way.
However, the Western World’s focus on and drive for (material) success often means that this notion of understanding and adapting our internal selves is hidden. ‘Secondary Control’ encourages us to adjust and adapt to our environment. Perhaps, rather than sticking with certainty and the familiar and adapting our environment to best suit my needs, I can embrace change and adapt myself to my environment. While this may not bring me the material success that is encouraged in more Western societies, it is a different form of ‘success’: I am growing as a person.
Personal Growth: taking risks without giving up control
So, it seems that I as a Human naturally want some control. However, I do have some choice over the type of control that I exercise. On the whole, Western societies would suggest that I, and all of us, should exercise control through controlling my environment. However, there is another choice. I can have control by exercising some control over myself and how I relate to my environment and adapting myself to the environment, rather than adapting my environment to myself. I wonder if taking risks and moving away from the familiar can give us another form of control, that an acceptance of the environment and the pain that it might hold has is the first step in gaining more agency with oneself. In taking this agency, we can learn to grow. Our avoidance of pain might make us feel safe and in control, but maybe taking risks can also do this with the added benefit of allowing us to grow.