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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Generation Meh

If there is one thing that unites a vast proportion of the university populace, it is fecklessness. We seem to take great pleasure in not only being crap, but making sure that everyone else knows just how crap we are. While it is important to celebrate what sets a community apart from general society, where exactly does this come from?

Four-fifths of those who live in my flat confess (under duress) to having masturbated as a way of avoiding working on an assignment. I have absolutely no idea if this is in any way unusual, but I suspect that it isn’t. During the last exam period, we very rarely had any hot water because people showered constantly at odd hours of the day. A shower, it seems, is an excellent and respectable way of not studying. And in the middle of a recent earthquake that you may have experienced, an acquaintance simply dropped to the floor and stared with tremendous insouciance at a moving wall while the rest of those present fled to the purported safety of the doorway. When queried as to why she had done this, she said that it just felt like the right thing to do, man. Whether you indulge in the occasional round of procrastibation or the odd boredom shower or not, people have a glorious capacity for doing things that they know are objectively a bit silly. Why is this the case? Let’s do some armchair psychoanalysis.

Humanity (or at least a part of it) seems to be particularly susceptible to knowing that something is stupid and then doing it anyway. Smoking can be the cause of cancers in the lungs, throat, mouth, heart, breasts, bladder, kidney, colon, nose, gullet, ovaries, stomach, vulva, pancreas, liver, and larynx, but I look ravishingly glamorous when I light up, and I secretly think I might be giving off a Helena Bonham-Carter in Fight Club–esque vibe when I do, so I’ll have a pack of Marlboro Reds, please.

Debt is not helpful, but I do legitimately need to buy 18 pounds of lavender soap I found for cheap on the internet, and also, there is someone in the Waikato selling a karaoke machine from 1993 on Trade Me which I strongly believe would be a prudent investment, so let’s hit up that overdraft, yo.

Drinking is similarly not good. Drinking can kill you. More worryingly, drinking can also make you express the usually carefully guarded opinion that you are actually the most incredibly wonderful person in all of existence (which is completely true in my case, but is a revelation that is not usually well-received in polite company). Even so, let’s watch Bring It On (and its attendant sequels if you’re next-level—Rihanna is in the second one!) and take a shot whenever Missy does something that defies social norms (like having a temporary tattoo!) or Torrance and Cliff exchange meaningful eye contact. Cue acute liver failure in half an hour.

I know that I am certainly guilty of all of these, and while I’m sure some who read this won’t be, I am comfortable in the knowledge that I am not alone. I am part of a community. A community of the stupid. In many ways humanity’s collective capacity for being unsensible is the most impressive thing about it.

Perhaps it’s evolutionary. Fight or flight, and all that. Humans are in many ways the most evolutionarily boring things ever. We’re so placid it’s dull. Very few new mothers rip the heads off their children and eat them. If the Cuban missile crisis had turned out differently, I like to think that we would have developed iron breasts festooned with a thousand quivering poisonous barbs to help us better deal with the post-nuclear wasteland, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Despite these disappointments, there are instances when the rational mind hands over control to the impulsive. Talking about ‘instincts’ is not in vogue in psychology, despite it making a certain sort of sense; the idea that we are hard-wired to behave in certain ways in the cause of self-preservation. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological change that occurs when potential danger is perceived. It’s a pretty great thing that our bodies are capable of.

Then again, that is actually a better explanation of why people sometimes perform heroic feats of athleticism (those people are the worst people) and why others can happily spend a weekday in bed researching Victorian spinsters and drinking a plunger of coffee every half-hour and eating an entire pizza alone and watching Pride and Prejudice yet again and having a bit of a cry (those people are the only people worth knowing). The point here, I suppose, is that what we do with our bodies probably isn’t something we are always truly in control of. When that woman dropped to the floor during the earthquake, she was subject to something that she didn’t totally understand. Coincidentally, her body might have known something the rest of those who fled for the sanctuary of the door didn’t. Door frames, it turns out, are a pretty crummy place to take shelter.

Freud might have an answer. I have to confess that if I was asked to write down the sum total of what I thought I understood about Freud down on a page I would be forced to scrawl RIP THE PENIS OFF! across the entirety of it. Freud did, however, conjecture initially in the Two Principles of Mental Functioning that people are in part driven by something called the pleasure principle—a reasonably simple theory that posits that people are driven by the urge to chase pleasure and avoid pain. The id, the part of our psychological motor that is supposed to be governed, or rather un-governed, by wild and untamed impulses, seeks instant gratification and is ruled by the pleasure principle. Conversely, the reality principle describes a mind where the ego is eventually governed by the ability to defer pleasure based on what is happening in the world around it. Perhaps the simple fact is that we students aren’t nearly as ‘reality-principled’ as Freud might have hoped.

Another important consideration is laziness. Laziness is an accepted psychological phenomenon, it just isn’t terribly well understood. Of course, the intersection between being indolent and being bored is slightly confusing. Psychologists are interested in laziness, but seemingly only in ways that makes us feel deep shame about our continued existence. A study at the University of Missouri earlier this year found that when less active mice were bred with other less active mice, and that when the same was done with active mice, those traits were compounded. In other words, you might just be generally crap at getting stuff done, and you can blame your parents for it.

But it is interesting to note the absence of academic literature surrounding laziness. Leonard Carmichael, an American psychologist, noted that despite Freud’s idea of the pleasure principle seemingly confirming that laziness is an important part of psychology, more is understood about “the motivation of thirsty rats and hungry pecking pigeons as they press levers or hit targets than is known about the way in which poets make themselves write poems or scientists force themselves into the laboratory when the good golfing days of spring arrive.” (I should point out that Carmichael was wrong at the end of that. There is no excuse for golf.) If this article is so trite and dull that your eyeballs have turned to soup and are mournfully running down your cheeks, then I would be interested in knowing why. Hop to it, psychology.

So we didn’t really get very far. We have learnt two important things, however. The first is that the pleasure principle seems to be something of an accurate descriptor of the way a lot of us behave. The second is that golf is dumb and masturbating isn’t. Of the two, I don’t know which is more important. But in all honesty, the lifestyle depicted thus far is barely functional. Nobody is quite this uniformly terrible at getting by. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though: we do like to complain with barely restrained glee about how terrible we are. Maybe if we just snipped that bit out we’d all do a lot better. Anyway, I’m going to work on an assignment now.

No, really, I am. Honest.

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