By: William Glasser, M.D.

All living creatures are driven by the basic need to stay alive and reproduce so that the species will continue. As humans have evolved from simple to complex, the basic need to survive and reproduce has been augmented by additional basic needs: Now, humans not only need (1) to survive and reproduce, but also (2) to belong and love, (3) to gain power, (4) to be free, and (5) to have fun.

All five needs are built into our genetic structure as instructions for how we must attempt to live our lives. All are equally important and must be reasonably satisfied if we are to fulfill our biological destiny. I italicize the need for power (3), because, unlike the other four needs that are shared to some extent by many higher animals, the way we humans continually struggle for power in every aspect of our lives seems uniquely human.

We are also born with no choice but to feel pain when a need is frustrated and pleasure when it is finally satisfied. The quicker and more severe the frustration, the more pain we feel; the quicker and deeper the satisfaction, the more pleasure we experience. We also feel a continual urge to behave when our need is unsatisfied and we can no more deny this urge than we can deny the color of our eyes.

For example, when we are thirsty, we have a great urge to seek water because to satisfy the genetic instruction to survive, we must have sufficient water for all of our tissues. At birth, we may not know what thirst is, but we know that we are unsatisfied. We both feel the pain associated with dehydration and the urge to behave, although at the time we have no idea what to do to satisfy our thirst.

Simple survival instructions like hunger, thirst, and sexual frustrations are relatively clear-cut, and we quickly learn what particular discomfort is attached to all the aspect of which and every need. For example, in the desert, where water is scarce, there is little ambiguity as to what thirst is and what will satisfy it.

When we attempt to satisfy the nonsurvival, essentially psychological needs, such as belonging, freedom and especially power, we run into more difficulty because what will satisfy these needs is much less clearly defined. For example, it is much harder to find as friend than to come in from the cold.

The need for power is particularly difficult to satisfy because in many cultures (certainly ours) the mores of the culture condemn those who openly strive for it. Even the master politicians try to appear humble, emphasizing how much they wish to serve and how little they really want to tell us what to do.

But, regardless of cultural prejudices, power is neither good nor bad.

There is nothing bad about wanting a fancy car or a big boat. In fact, if it were not for the need for power, our whole economy would crumble overnight because almost everything that is bought or sold, except for our bare necessities, is for the sake of power is some form. Except for a few of the classified ads, almost all the advertisements we ‘re exposed to daily in any form of the media are for products that will make their purchasers more powerful. No one needs as Porsche to get to work or a designer label on their blue jeans.

When someone sues his power to help downtrodden people satisfy any of their basic needs, especially to get some power, this use of power is very humane. But, history records few examples of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who used what power he had for the benefit of the powerless.

Instead, history is replete with tyrants who used their power to hurt people, and the reason that so many of us see power as bad is because so many people have been its victims.

But, even tyrants talk about power as if it is bad: They wish that their enemies would let them be more humble. Their purpose is always to preach the virtues of humility because the more people they can persuade to be humble, the more easily they can both preserve and add to the power they already have.

Power, therefore, caries a cultural taint which does not seem to extend to the other four psychological needs. I know of no culture that denigrates the need to love and belong (2). Freedom, (4) is also cherished by almost every society, and while fun (5) may not get the recognition it rightly deserves, it does seem to be an integral part of both primitive and civilized cultures. That these needs are built into our genetic structure is difficult to prove.

It is, however, well known that infants who are given only daily physical care, but no natural love or attention will become withdrawn, fail to assimilate their food and die of a peculiar starvation known as “marasmus” This is strong evidence that this need is present and very pressing from birth.

Early in our evolution, the psychological needs which have now become separate were probably linked to our need for survival. For example, we are descended from people who quickly learned that they had to nurture each other to survive. Living in groups, cooperating, sharing and caring gave our ancestors so much more advantage over those who were less cooperative that our human species gradually became dominant.

Certainly, the beginning of the separate need to care is seen in many higher animals; and in apes and gorillas it is probably almost as developed as it is in us. Without long-term parental care, no mammalian babies will survive, and anyone reading this is well aware that in humans love between parents and children never seems to run out.

Almost all of us are uncomfortable when we are alone for too long, and it is my belief that children whom we call autistic, who seem to have little or no need for others, may be suffering from a defect I this genetic instruction just as surely as a child suffering from a specific genetic defect called Down’s syndrome may be retarded and physically handicapped.

While it is easy to understand that people who strive for power may become dominant and have a better chance for survival, most of us have difficulty in accepting that this need is written in our genes. As I have mentioned, culturally we have been taught by those in power to be humble and that it is not moral to try to gain too much power. That their teachings have been largely accepted when what they advocate is so obviously self-serving is a tribute to how effective they have been in getting their message out and accepted.

But also, because we want power so badly, we often support those who are stronger in the hope that they will share a little of what they get with us. And----if they are wise----they surely do so. Successful politicians are masters of this approach and the same expertise is not unknown in business, higher education, and , yes, even religion.

If you look around in any society, you cannot fail to see the all-pervasive effect of this need. Families band together for power, but if they succeed in becoming very powerful, they tend in almost all cases to fight among themselves for the lion’s share of what they have. Rather than go over what seems so obvious, just ask yourself one question: Who do you know who is so completely satisfied with his life that he can go a week without complaining that someone has gotten in the way of what he wanted to do? Most of cannot go through a gripe-free day: To be satisfied with how others have treated us for a week would seem like an eternity to us.

We are intensely competitive.

If we think that we have any chance at all to move beyond bare survival, we are almost all ambitious. We worry about winning, our honor, our pride, our integrity, our desire to be heard, our need to be right, who recognizes us, whether we are achieving enough, rich enough, good-looking, well-dressed, influential--------the list is endless.(add your own)

We are easily jealous and “stupid” people call us arrogant when all we are is competent. We worry about our status, position, and whether we have clout. We are constantly attempting to avoid those who would coerce us, manipulate us or otherwise use us. That we have often been wronged and so seek revenge is much on the minds of a great many of us. Do people put us down or avoid us when we are merely offering “constructive” criticism on how they live their lives? If what I have written here----and, I could continue on and on; but won’t-----does not pertain to the way you live your life, then it may be that you, luckily, are not driven by this need. But, then, maybe you are not of our species: Among us, even the most humble compete for who can be the humblest of us all.

You can decide for yourself whether power is used more for good than for evil, but simply as a genetic need it has no morality. Our needs push us for fulfillment; whether in our attempt to satisfy them we do right or wrong is up to each of us to decide. I am spending so much time explaining this need because it is by far; (by far), especially for young people, the most; (the very most), difficult to fulfill.

Freedom (4) another basic need, is often in conflict with power, and even to some extent with belonging (2). The more power you have, even if you use it for my benefit, the less freedom I have. It seems that there has to be a counter-force to power; unbridled power would be destructive to the survival of the species Therefore, almost everything said about could also be reworded into the vocabulary of freedom. For example, we may be inherently competitive but we want the freedom of when and where to compete. We want to win but we also want to be free to lose without losing too much. And as much as a child may love her parents, she also wants the freedom to branch out on her own. So you can see that freedom can be in conflict not only with power but also belonging. For example, if you want me around too much, I claim that you stifle me, but if you aren’t constantly giving me the expected amount of attention, I then claim you don’t love me anymore.

But, this is far from a necessary conflict and most of us are finally able to figure out compatible ways to satisfy both of our needs.

Most people, after some thought on the matter, have no difficulty accepting that love, power, and freedom are as basic as the need to survive. They might, however, question my claim that fun is a basic need. They wonder, do you really need to have fun and what is it, anyway?

FUN—it’s hard to define, but we all know that fun is associated with laughter, play, and entertainment. It’s part of the job that you don’t have to do, but doing it may just well be the best part of the job. It is never serious, but it is quite often important: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It can be frivolous, but it doesn’t have to be. It is the intangible joy that people experience when they discover how much they share when they didn’t expect to get along so well or the unexpected dividend that accompanies a plan that turns out so much better than expected. It can be planned, but, it is much more likely to be just spontaneous. It can balance a lot of misery and it is like a catalyst that makes anything we do better and more worth doing again and again.

Not only humans have fun, even though, as best we know, we seem to be the only creature who laughs. My observations prove to me that all animals, who can make choices as to what to do to fulfill their needs, seem at various times to have fun. The higher the animal, the more fun.

Apes appear to be more fun seeing than dogs or cats. The older the creature, the less it seems interested in fun, but given an opportunity, human beings in the last third of their lives, seem as much interested In pursuing fun as young people, especially if they have the money and time to match their desires. Lower animals, whose behavior is essentially built-in and who do not have much ability to learn, are not very involved in fun. Say you want a fun pet—don’t pick a turtle.

My guess is that we (of all higher animals who are capable, and have the opportunity, of learning) will survive in direct proportion to how much we learn. So, driven by the need for fun, we always have a powerful genetic incentive to keep trying to learn as much as we can. Without the relationship between fun and learning we would not learn nearly as much, especially when we are young and have so much to learn. I do realize that we also learn for power, love and freedom, but to truly satisfy these often requires long-term dedication.

It is the immediate fun of learning that keeps us going day by day, especially when we are young and have so much to learn. Just watch a baby or puppy at play and you will see that during all the obvious fun and clowning some important learning is also going on. In fact, even if all we set out to do is have fun, if we succeed, it is almost impossible not to have learned something new and quite often important.

When little babies discover something while playing, they squeal for joy because even though they don’t realize it, they are having fun. In fact, when any of us is an any situation where we decide that we no longer want to learn, we stop having fun. While old dogs and cats who no longer play could be said to have learned about all they want to know, higher animals like us (and maybe apes and porpoises) never seem to stop pursuing fun, because driven by so many needs, we can never, learn enough to satisfy ourselves for any appreciable length of time.

A good ( I said good ) comedian is always a good teacher.

It is the clear, sharp but unexpected insights of a comic like Bill Cosby. (a good comedian,) that are so filled with learning that we cannot fail to laugh. When highly trained astronauts voyage into outer-space they find that joking and “clowning around” are the nest way to keep sharp as they struggle with the unforseen difficulties that require quick answers. And as you always remember, your best teachers were able to make learning so much fun that you may still recall what they taught you even though you have little use for it now. What you remember is the fun, and so, seem not to be able to forget the learning that was a part of it.

Boring is the opposite of fun. It always happens when we have to spend time without learning. A monotonous task is always boring. Now, if we can find a way to learn while doing something repetitive (for example, listening to the tape of a good book while commuting), this can make a boring ride to and from work daily fun. In fact, boredom can be defeated by the satisfaction of any basic need (for example, making the task competitive, as in a corn-shucking contest, or social, as Tom Sawyer did when he was painting the fence.)

A prisoner who is actively planning his escape finds his confinement much less oppressive. Any time we can introduce power, freedom or belonging into any situation, we will find it much more interesting. But, as we do, we also find ourselves having fun and can not help learning along the way. Now we will find ourselves laughing when previously we were yawning. I am sure you have noticed that deadly boredom that pervades any time that you have to spend with someone who “knows it all.”

Source: Choice Theory in the Classroom
By:...William Glasser, M.D. @ copyright 1986
Chapter Three - pgs. 25-34.
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
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New York, NY 10022

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