Goals: Instinct or Instruction?

March 16, 2005  

I have had numerous debates as to whether goals are in the genetic make-up of the human DNA, or whether they are learned over time by the subtle (and not so subtle) messages within society. Although I am not, nor do I profess to be, a geneticist, looking at various cultures around the world convinces me that the drive for goals is not (or at least was not) universal. The philosophy in some Southern European countries is “work to live”. Siestas and six weeks of vacation a year are commonplace. This is certainly less stressful than the “live to work” mentality that permeates American culture. And prior to the recent westernization, many Eastern cultures were based on goal-free philosophies. Buddhism, Zen, and Taoist beliefs, prevalent in Eastern cultures, are very much about living for the here and now.

Prior to Westernization, Japan was a society driven by Buddhist beliefs. But the introduction of America’s achievement-oriented culture has created rampant goalaholism. Stress in schools is so strong that Japanese schools have spawned a phenomenon known as hikikomori, where students withdraw and lock themselves in their rooms for months, or even years. For five years straight, Japan’s suicide rate has topped 30,000, which gives it one of the highest suicide rates amongst advanced societies. Pressure to perform well in studies plays a major role in suicidal behavior among students. More than 90% of the students who attempted suicide had experienced a failure in work or school. And for adults in the business world, stress has gotten out of control. In a society that intensely dislikes confrontation, but is so driven to achieve, the only outlet has become getting drunk on the weekends. This is the only socially acceptable means of dealing with stress, and letting their true feelings show. It has reached the point where teetotalers are viewed as not being loyal team players, and may suffer from a career standpoint. An achievement orientation, introduced into a goal-free culture, appears to create rampant goalaholism…and problems.