Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay.
Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay.

Hugh explores objects of desire

One of Australia’s pre-eminent social researchers, commentators and thinkers, Hugh Mackay, is coming to Lismore to promote his new book What Makes Us Tick? – The Ten Desires That Drive Us.

He has spent most of his working life researching why people do the things they do; from the mundane decisions about the TV programs we watch and the products we buy to how we decide who to vote for and who to marry. The book is part reflection, part psychological analysis, based on his many years of listening to people talk about their dreams, fears, faith, hopes, disappointments, frustrations, and their fantasies. One reviewer described the book as “well researched with a touch of the grandfatherly fireside chat” and when The Echo spoke to Hugh Mackay this week, he embraced that description.

“Well I am a grandfather... There are some personal reflections of my own and the tone of the book is, I hope, accessible. It’s not an academic book; it’s designed for the general reader so you don’t need to have studied psychology to get it... It’s the kind of book I couldn’t write until I had enough experience under my belt to make some of these points.

“It’s the distillation of 30 or 40 years social research, but I have borrowed plenty of other research because it’s not just about Australia, but about human behaviour in Western society, and I have also borrowed heavily from ancient wisdom as well,” he said.

Generally the pursuit of happiness has been accepted as the main driver of human activity and decision making, but Hugh argues that happiness is over-rated.

“I think we’ve been through a period where there has been excessive emphasis on positive psychology, the whole self esteem movement... I am arguing that we should be thinking about ‘wholeness’. By that I mean being able to deal with all of our emotions. You learn more from the bad times and through suffering and failure than you do from happiness and triumph,” he said. “Some people use the word happiness to mean more than being bright and cheery, but I think the word ‘wholeness’ comes closer to what the goal of our life should be. If the pursuit of happiness is the goal of life, then when you are feeling unhappiness or frustration, you feel that something is not right, but it is absolutely a part of being human.”

The book is subtitled The Ten Desires That Drive Us, but Hugh said the interplay between these desires is what really drives us.

“Number one in the mix is the desire to be taken seriously... That doesn’t mean we want people to think of us as serious, but to be valued, acknowledged, appreciated, accepted and understood.... Otherwise we feel like we don’t exist, that we are not a worthwhile person. That’s why things like an official apology are so important and why listeners are so valued in our society. When someone listens to you, it is the ultimate sign of respect,” he said.

Not surprisingly, another desire that he put near the top of the hierarchy was the need to have some kind of belief system.

“There is no scientific explanation for life on earth that satisfies or gives meaning or purpose to our life so we need some kind of belief system as a framework. And it might be astrology or a conspiracy theory or a belief in the free market, but we are all driven by some set of beliefs... People find others’ beliefs weird, which is why there is so much tension and conflict arising, particularly from religious beliefs.”

Some of the other drivers he mentioned are the desire to belong, the desire for more (which Hugh said included some of our “darkest desires” such as money, sex, possession and control) and of course the desire for love.

“It’s the source of emotional security for most people,” he said.

Hugh has been arguing for many years about the need for a three-fold connection between people with their inner selves, the natural world and with others, and he offers some reflections on the dangers of having online relationships and communications and at the expense of face to face ones.

“For the rising generation, the under 30s, they feel like their online community is real communication and real contact. I’ve argued in this book and others that what is missing is the visual cues we get from face to face contact. Most of the meaning exchanged is not in the words, it’s in the facial expression and body language and so on.

“Online contact is never going to replace face to face, and maintaining relationships through constant texting and Facebook is great and is another source of stimulus that is different to personal contact with friends, but it’s a bit of a hoax to talk about friends if you have 300 people signed up Facebook. It’s a very different thing to what we have traditionally understood friendship to be.”

Hugh Mackay is in Lismore next Tuesday, November 9, at the Lismore Workers Club Platinum Bar from 5.30-7.30pm. The cost is $20 and that includes a drink, a presentation and question time. To book contact karen.howes or phone 6626 9164.

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