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The need for significance
Breathe easily. The midterm elections are over. Thank you for voting. Now, go back to being a nice person who loves the neighbors and shops locally. This week’s Life Intelligence is a bit of a rant but don’t worry, I am still an equal opportunity offender. Subscribe and get the next one in your email.
No one wants to be a no-one. Even people who like hiding in the shadows have a need for significance. It’s one of the six human needs, according to human needs-based psychology. They stack up like this:
1. Certainty: that you can avoid pain and gain pleasure. Safety. Stability.
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for change, new stimuli, adventure, and exploration.
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special, or needed. Feeling important, consequential.
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, skills, understanding, and personal development.
6. Contribution: a sense of service helping others, giving and supporting other people and causes.
We all have them. But we all have them in different amounts. Thus, we all interact with the world differently based on which of these needs dominate our personal preferences. Any activity that can satisfy at least three of these needs to a high degree becomes one we cannot easily quit.
Here’s an example. A workaholic gets his need for certainty, significance, and probably growth met at a very high level. The work provides the means to their lifestyle. Work performance and achievements earn them praise and a high level of respect from others. The daily challenges they face provide a stimulating environment with learning opportunities, increasing skills and expertise. Additionally, they also feel more connected and better understood by work friends and colleagues than anyone else. And that’s why workaholics keep working!
In times of uncertainty, like now, with political and economic challenges at home and geo-political chaos, many feel extra uncertain. One way to reduce that lack of certainty is to increase individual sense of significance. In a healthy way, this will look like becoming more tightly interdependent with one’s local community, even having the desire to run for local office to improve things. Becoming more helpful to family and friends helps us, too, by giving us purpose and a feeling of participating in something bigger than our problems. Scientists motivated to resolve the suffering from disease or becoming an expert in one’s profession also satisfy the need for significance.
An actor gets significance by earning an Oscar. An athlete gets significance by winning a medal.
You get the point. A healthy way to find significance comes from altruism, inspiration, concern, compassion, and care. Healthy significance leads to productive actions that improve life, often not just for one person but also for entire families, communities, and humanity. It inspires others to do the same and do their best.
But there are other ways. Easier in a way but often more destructive, sowing division, mistrust, and even leading to violence.
Think conspiracy theories - people who believe in complicated, outlandish, even impossible ideas, like Jewish space lasers starting forest fires. I mean, where are them space lasers when you need one? Imagine the good they could’ve done to end the war in Ukraine already. I can see how a few space lasers could erase the entire Russian frontline in a matter of minutes. It will make the place smell like a human BBQ, but the cost is small compared to the food and energy shortages, the environmental devastation, and the immigration crisis. It’s a much better resolution than the meat grinder now.
What if you hear the call for equality in your hour of uncertainty and join a group willing to cause anarchy to get to equality? That’s how communism started a long time ago. The disenfranchised, the poorest, and the hungry, together with the stary-eyed, bored sons and daughters of the wealthy, concocted some pretty utopian ideas half the world signed on to. While nationalizing properties, building factories, and plowing the land, they sang songs of freedom from capitalist oppression and equality. Everyone was safe as long as they didn’t criticize the dear communist leaders. Fast forward 40 – 50 years and those who were poor then were still poor and had even fewer options for advancement. The great leaders fully embraced kleptocracy and made sure no one sang songs about that, hence labor camps.
Here at home, we had our own versions of revolutions. When the BLM protests turned into riots, turned into encampments, turned into looting, turned into sections of cities outside of emergency responders’ reach, people found significance in the fight against racial inequality and systemic racism but also in breaking and burning things, in solidarity with each other but rejecting everyone else as the enemy, and in being the center of attention for the entire nation at any cost! Many still consider it a sacred movement!
Most figured out that there’s a better way to get things done. Hence, this midterm election saw the most diverse cohort of candidates for all political posts on both the Democratic AND the Republican sides!
The second such “disenfranchised” people’s revolution happened on January 6, 2021, during the attack on the Capitol. Judging by the fact that no one was deterred by the prospect of breaking the law, nor the violence they were committing to fellow citizens just doing their job, the insurrectionists thought themselves above both law and peace. Seemingly normal people from everyday America went looking to hang Mike Pence, loot the Capitol, and hurt law enforcement and specific members of Congress. Those who are not yet in jail for their “day of significance” pretend it never happened. Others excuse or minimize the event. Some, however, ran for office in this midterm election as proud supporters of the insurrection, continuing to derive significance by association and making promises to subvert democracy.
What if it is God who whispers in your ear? You will listen without questioning why he’d whisper in your ear out of the ears of 9 billion other people. You will listen, because your special connection with God makes you unique, protected, and always right! It makes you significant. Just don’t think of God whispering contradicting things to people in different religions and spiritual traditions, causing them to fight one another. If you do, you will realize that you are the infidel to someone else’s God. And they are the savages to yours.
A gun can give you instant significance when you point it at someone. Hopefully, that someone is a thug doing ungodly things in your house, not a bank teller, a cop, or a school kid. But if you wonder why America is the country with 112 guns per every 100 people, the #1 in the world for gun ownership, that’s why. Proud Boys own arsenals of guns. I don’t own any. Imagine who would win this dick-measuring contest… Firepower vs. brains. Firepower wins every time. Oh, snap!
People do not want to give up their guns because many get significance and certainty by having them. Or so they think. And it absolutely does not matter how many kids will die. Even the person who goes to shoot at a school is there for significance. He will make a point no one understands, and the news! But someone will finally look at him, talk about him, and at least fear him if they can’t love him.
In a culture bowing to the gods of fame and fortune, most people in the 99% of the population feel insignificant. Every one of them is vulnerable and corruptible because they need significance, too.
Unscrupulous politicians can hijack that need for significance with emotional fear-based appeals. It happens every day. Millions of people still donate to Trump’s various fundraiser efforts, supposedly for his legal fees to fight the witch hunt, but actually paying for his refurbished, repainted campaign airplane and lavish lifestyle.
The hoax of the stolen election has galvanized millions who wear Trump’s cult garb. They question nothing that comes out of his mouth, will buy whatever he sells, and will excuse whatever transgressions he commits. They are devoted because they feel significant contributing and promoting the MAGA identity. It’s not even about America anymore. It’s about MAGA. It’s the MAGA team vs. everyone else. MAGA politicians understand that the boogieman (transgender rights, communism, race, and replacement theory, etc.) is only as effective as the degree of fear it produces, so they magnify what’s already there and invent what they need to get the desired emotional response and commitment.
Kind of like the preacher scaring the bejesus out of you with stories of hell and then passing the collection plate. Your donation will be directly proportionate to your desire to avoid hell.
On the Left, the desire for significance has malfunctioned and manifested in a war against people who don’t use the correct pronoun, debates over bathrooms, and entitlement to participation trophies. Everyone wants to be someone… different, special, unique, and acknowledged. I am all for self-expression. However, self-expression does not include denying self or expression to those who want to be regular, boring, male and female with old-fashioned values like self-reliance, grit, and missionary sex. In a world of a thousand flavors of ice cream, there are still people who only eat vanilla. And that’s OK!
On the Right, the desire for significance shows up as motivation to persecute political opponents, stuff the courts with your people regardless of qualifications, voter intimidation, gerrymandering, and assure your team wins at any cost, even if the cost is the very foundation of democratic elections. Power is the ultimate significance! Whoever has the most power has the most significance and is certain to get what they want in a world of their design.
On the streets and in the supermarket, a Karen gets significance by calling the manager.
A Q believer gets significance arguing that Joe Biden is a “fake president,” played by someone else, even Trump himself. Just don’t ask if Joe Biden is not the real president, why blame him for the high gas prices and inflation… Just saying you can’t have it both ways.
You get the point. An unhealthy way to find significance comes from selfish anger, hate, and fear. It brings the destruction of things, places, and people. It erodes hope in justice and equal access to opportunity. It kills trust in institutions and the goodness of others. It frays the fabric of a civilized, prosperous society.
If you need significance and look up the list to Love/Connection, Growth, and Contribution, you will quickly realize that working on fulfilling those three needs will automatically reward you with all the significance you need. While if you seek significance as an antidote to too much uncertainty, you’ll likely make some poor choices, especially if you are the impatient type looking for quick results.
Always ask yourself why you do what you do. What are you getting out of your behavior, in terms of these six human needs, but especially in terms of significance? Hopefully, such an honest self-inquiry will save you from becoming a selfish prick.
Coming from behind the Iron Curtain to the most democratic country in the world, I find myself puzzled why people are open to authoritarianism. This Vice News episode is one of eight on the state of our democracy leading up to the election. If you want to watch all of them, you can find the playlist HERE.
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