Notes from a conversation with Professor Claudio Colaguori from York University:
Sweetness and Sorrow in “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Why doesn’t success always equal happiness? What is a wonderful life?
This past week I had a chance to participate in a discussion led by Dr. Claudio Colaguori, a sociology professor from York University. The discussion took place as part of the Salon Voltaire meetings prior to the CanStage theatrical adaptation of the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
Prof. Colaguori attempted to weave a number of insights from sociology into the evening’s discussion questions of “Why doesn’t success always equal happiness?” and “What is a wonderful life?”
Claudio Colaguori began by stating that the study of sociology is a matter of unlearning the things we already think we know. He challenged the audience with the question “What if what you thought to be true is actually false?” Related to this he said: “be aware that your thoughts and actions are integrated.” For example, he asked, “why do young children want to be authority figures such as police officers, teachers, or doctors?” What prompts children to adopt these authority figures as role models from a very early age? Colaguori suggested that this one observation hints at the deep connection between who we are as humans and the surrounding society. On the flip side of this is the observation that our institutions are socially constructed.
The lesson that Prof. Colaguori wants us to take from this is that we are not simply constructs of our surroundings and therefore cannot blame society for our personal problems. Rather, he wanted to offer the encouraging insight that once we more fully understand how personal identity works, we may be able to effect change in the world, thereby making it a better place to live.
Prof. Colaguori continued his talk by making a comparison between animals and humans. He said that animals are ruled by instincts, but humans are not. We often make the mistake of thinking that humans have instincts. However, according to Colaguori, humans do not have instincts. Rather, humans are ruled by culture. He claimed that people have “drives not instincts. ” Instincts are pre-programmed responses, and humans are not subject to these types of automatic impulses. As an example of an animal instinct he used the example of a sea turtle that returns back to the beach to lay its eggs, no matter what.
Humans are not programmed with instincts in this way. If it’s true that humans don’t have instincts, then what is the mechanism shapes human behaviour? Prof. Colaguori argued that this was a paradox. The driver for humans was not internal, but was supplied from the surrounding culture, which is in turn a human creation. Culture itself develops the individual tools for survival for the individual within that culture.
The result of this is, that unlike for sea turtles whose success comes from fulfilling their instincts, for humans success is culturally defined. However, the problem is that in western society we tend to place higher priority on economic success. The problem with having such a narrow focus on economic success, is that this represents merely one kind of success. For example, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self actualization is the highest form of happiness and success.
Humans have many other types of needs that are not specifically linked with economic success. These include, health and nutrition of the body, mental needs: spiritual and intellectual needs, need for social bonds, and of course, material needs which are also necessary.
The problem, noted Prof. Colaguori, is that in many cases, people will engage in self destruction to pursue economic ends. For example, they will prioritize economic success over and above friendship, or above their personal health and physical well-being.
Related to this prioritization of one type of success over other types of success, is the insight that typically we don’t take enough heed regarding the notion that humans are fragile creatures and require an incredibly long time for nurturing. In the long growth stages required by humans, people are very vulnerable to outside influences. Prof. Colaguori referred to some extreme examples to make his point. For example, he mentioned the case of feral children. There’s a documentary called Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children that deals with this topic of children being abandoned from human contact. One of the children featured in this documentary is a girl in Eastern Europe who was abandoned and raised by dogs. In the film, Dr. Colaguori mentioned, she runs around on all fours and barks.
So the larger point that Prof. Colaguori made was that if you take a child and place them with dogs or wolves, they can be raised according to dog or wolf culture. Or you if you take a child from another society and have them live with Inuits and they will grow up to become socialized into Inuit culture. This quality of extreme susceptibility to socialization is what sociologists mean when they say that humans are “plastic.”
The question is, What makes humans so fragile? Colaguori suggested that early experiences can have significant impact. Exposure to spoken language is vital. If you aren’t exposed to language at the right time you will lose the ability for language forever.
However, he went on to state that the issues we face today are similar to the issues faced by our ancestors in earlier generations. While society has changed dramatically throughout the ages, the basic issues haven’t really changed. The issue of Quality of Life hasn’t really changed. There are several aspects to Quality of Life which were true in the past and are true today. Colaguori highlighted at least four aspects which are all desirable and have been recognized in previous times. According to Colaguori, these include such elements as:
1 Autonomy and control of your own life.
2 Romance and love.
3 Genuine human relationships.
4 Good personal self esteem.
The problem with these elements in our modern society is that we are sold the above four things as consumer item.s Colaguori went on to describe this process as a kind of cultural deception that is going on, and of which we don’t have a full awareness. We are being manipulated in ways that we can’t quite fully grasp but which are evidenced in the types of holiday shopping rampages of which I posted earlier here and here.
Not all people are effected to the same extent by this type of cultural conditioning. What makes some people different from others in this regard? Why is it that some people are more resistant to being sucked into the assumptions and behaviours of consumer society? Colaguori went on to argue that some people have a better capacity for judgment and self awareness, and are able to develop an alternative perspective.
The question was raised by one of the evening’s participants of “How do we acquire the skills for critical judgment and self awareness?” Colaguori responded that it all comes down to the facility of excercising the faculty of critical thought, combined with the emotional factor of having a strong desire to change. Prof. Colaguori stated that many people routinely talk about wanting to change but rarely take the necessary steps either in developing critical thought nor in having a sustained desire to pursue change wholeheartedly.
Prof. Colaguori argued that one of the most important things a person can do to effect personal or social change is to “step outside of the box” in order to find alternative sources of information. These alternative sources of information can be hard to find because most of our regular sources of information are part and parcel of the consumerist vision of the world.
As further reflection on this topic based on one of the questions that was asked, Colaguori noted that one of the problems is that the medical community comes up with medical terms like ADD when in fact the problems may be related to consumerism. The difference between the medical model and the sociological model in explaining a situation like ADD is that medical model sees the neurological deficiency, whereas the sociological model sees the overwhelming consumerism which results in the neurological deficiency.
Prof. Claudio Colaguori presented many interesting and worthwhile insights regarding our modern confusion with notions of success.
One of the fundamental questions Colaguori left the audience with near the end of the discussion was the question of “Why are so many of us participating in a reality created for us by Hollywood, or by video game companies, or TV sitcoms instead of creating our own reality? For example, why do people sit on a couch and watch “Friends” on TV instead of doing something interesting with their own friends?