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Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Psychology of the Mundane

Read a book about history, biography, or fiction, and you find a narrative of complex motives, intrigue, and action. For the drama of being alive, psychologists have followed the lure of the literary, and have focused on explaining the high points of the human narrative. But the human narrative, if looked at from moment to moment with no special attention given to the intermittent drama of human existence is a rather boring slog. Take the American Civil War for instance. We know the Civil War as an exciting narrative of battles, heroism, and sacrifice, but what Civil War soldiers did ninety nine percent of the time was merely march around and wait. For individuals, although we remember the special moments of our lives, almost all of it is pretty un-special and involves marching around our real or virtual environments, and waiting. Of course all that marching and waiting eventually adds up to something, but perhaps what is needed in the interim is not good advice, but some really good walking shoes. For Civil War soldiers (particularly the Confederates) the prize to be won on the battlefield was not gold or booty, but a good pair of boots. Similarly, for us ordinary Joes to get to the intermittent accomplishments that mark our lives, the mundane solutions are best because that is where we spend the overwhelming majority of our time.  

The question as to how to best spend our time is can best be answered if we consider where we spend our time. Life is mundane, but our accomplishments derive from doing mundane things. Even Civil War victories often depended upon getting to the field of battle the ‘fastest with the mostest’.  The psychology of the mundane, or of the ordinary entails a command of mundane things, but it also implies that behavior is controlled by mundane things. The mundane of course represents the familiar, the simple, but too often if the simple is not familiar, then motivation becomes not complex but subtle. And of course, ignore the subtle details of behavior, and your behavior will go astray. Ultimately, to understand the sameness of behavior, the often dreary consistencies that merit little narrative of how to get where we want to go is to master the trajectory of your life. Indeed, to win a battle without fighting, as the Chinese martial philosopher Sun Tzu said, is to master the mundane, and understand that the clash of emotions, like the clash of arms is dealt with best by understanding and controlling the countless unremarkable events that is sum allow us to do great things.

 Inaction scenes from the Civil War

The emotional problems that beset us are most often due to failures to perform or to meet the feasible demands of our daily lives, from working hard to playing hard. But success in any performance is due to an accumulation of scarcely remarkable things. This is bad news for philosophers, since if motivation depends upon momentary incentives and disincentives of slight import, then wisdom is easier than we think. Thus to be or not to be is not the question, but what’s for lunch.

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