A couple of posts back I talked about goals and motivation, and I mentioned the hierarchy of needs. I'd like to return to this hierarchy once again as an introduction to this post. A short quote from the wiki article: "The motivation to realize one's own maximum potential and possibilities is considered to be the master motive or the only real motive." This is mentioned for self-actualization, the highest level of the pyramid of needs. It's the level that people can function at when all their other needs (sleep, food, friends, good health, ...) are satisfied. What this means is that a person can only truly accomplish that what he is motivated to do, if all other needs have been satisfied. I'd like to discuss a bit about how this affects Japanese society, and suicide rates in particular. But perhaps most importantly I want to introduce a new 'need' to our society: the need for Epic.
Let's start by explaining epic. An epic story is basically a story with heroes and monsters, good and evil, right and wrong, where a battle or a struggle goes on in a large scale involving hundreds or thousand or millions of people. It's a situation wherein everybody is motivated one hundred percent for whatever it is they do. As a real-life example, let's take World War 2. An epic struggle between two forces that turned the whole world into a battlefield. There was a clear distinction between good (liberating countries that were conquered) and evil (obvious genocide). The consequences of everyone's actions were clear. Either one side or the other would end up victorious and ruling the world (and writing the history books, too). This is but one example, but there are of course many others. Think ancient Rome, think Sparta, think Alexander the Great or the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. All of these are prime examples of mankind that will be remembered forever. Because they were Epic.
So what does the hierarchy of needs have to do with Epic, and what do both of them have to do with Japan? Let's go back to the hierarchy of needs for a bit. The top level of the needs pyramid is self-actualization, and the ability to live up to your potential. According to the pyramid we cannot focus on this if our other needs are not satisfied. In WW2 everybody was so preoccupied with saving the world (or conquering it) that they didn't have time to think about self-actualization or any of those things. Peace is one of the prerequisites. But I dare say that we have peace now. Some people who read this post may not agree with me, which only proves my point. WE have peace now. Those that don't have peace don't have the ability or the time to read, understand and reply to this post. So, since there is peace in our region of the world, does that mean that suddenly everybody lives up to their maximum potential? This is where the doubt should start to creep in your mind.
We don't. Is it that suddenly because everyone's basic needs are fulfilled we feel like accomplishing great things? I'd say that, above a certain level, it's rather the opposite. People become lazy and unmotivated. It's the luxury of thought that allows us to think about ourselves and our position, and if it all really matters in the great game of life. I think the human race as a whole is becoming smarter and more wealthy (in terms of food, health care, comfort) every year, which is both a blessing and a curse. Thanks to the increase in intelligence we have achieved a quality of life that has never before been achieved. But due to the same factors we are unable to appreciate it as much as we could had we been less intelligent. People have so many choices these days that they're unable to decide which one is the 'right' one. Life has turned from a game of tic-tac-toe into a game of chess, and suddenly life is not so simple anymore.
So what do people do, in the face of all of these choices? They commit suicide. Well, in Japan, at least. One of the countries with the highest average IQ also has one of the highest suicide rates. The connection is usually placed between high working pressure and an honor culture where you're supposed to take responsibility for your failings, which then leads to suicide. I think the connection should be extrapolated to include the intelligence level as well, because that influences the ability to self-actualize. In other countries, if people's basic needs are not being met, then they don't even have time to consider suicide, which in the most often cited example (work pressure) stems from the self-actualization-level of the pyramid. (Admittedly, the second-highest level, Esteem, includes the respect part, but I think that the conscious decision of killing oneself should belong to the highest level of the pyramid, even if the cause of that decision lies lower.)
Once people have the ability to realize by themselves that they have a conscious choice to end their own life or to continue living, they start to weigh both sides to see which is the better choice. Is it better to kill yourself, solving all your problems in one strike but taking away all the good things, or to continue living a life that has little chance of increasing in quality in the future? Religion decides the point of view here greatly, but the Japanese are largely non-religious, or at least not so religious that it would interfere with this kind of decision. The bottom line is that there are two prerequisites for people to even consider an option such as suicide. One: the fulfillment of all the needs on the lower levels of the pyramid. Two: a high enough intelligence level to self-actualize and consciously weigh the options of continuing to live versus ending your own life.
Now that we have reached this level, why is it Japan in particular that has such a high suicide rate? As I mentioned before, a minimum level of intelligence is required to reach this decision. After that, it's about weighing the options and deciding which one is best. Assuming that people here are able to reason about this intelligently, like people with similar intelligence in other countries, then the reason must be that they actually, consciously, consider the suicide option to be better. Why? Is it because their personal life lacks something? Is it because society is not taking care of its citizens enough? Is it a consequence of people who 'think too much' and get stuck in the game of chess thinking that they're about to lose when actually they still have many chances to win?
I'm not really sure. But I think it has something to do with the multitude of choices available to us in modern day life, and the lack of something truly epic to inspire us. The sense of purpose is missing. Ironically, at the times when a sense of purpose was present, like WW2, people either did not have the time to self-actualize, or they balanced suicide versus living and actually chose to live rather than kill themselves. (whoops, I'm missing the stats on this one! >_<;) People these days are just not easily inspired. The media tries to think of beautiful slogans to inspire people ('The war on terror', for example) but people just don't care. They get tired of it. During WW2 the Japanese people could not possibly be more motivated. They fought for the glory of the great Japanese empire. They did not even question in their minds if what they did was right or wrong, and neither did the Allies. In war everything is simple: defeat the enemy and you do good. Fail and you do bad. A lack of choices and an epic world-wide scale motivates people to their maximum extent.
People often have a deluded sense of the choices that they have. We might think that we're able to lose weight by dieting strictly for a week, or that we're able to quit smoking if we really want to. These are but simple things that I'm sure everyone believes they can do, but there are so many people actually not doing it (myself included!). People's ability to extrapolate their own abilities leads to even worse situations, like people appearing on an idol show thinking they can actually sing, to name a rather sad actual example. I'm not saying we should narrow down our choices, but just blindly believing that we can do anything just because we have the option to do anything is really not the way to go. We should realistically re-evaluate our options, and think critically about which options to keep, and which options to cross out. This alone should make life a lot simpler for people, and it should help them get motivated as well.
But what we really need is something epic. Something we can all believe in. One single event or one single goal that can unite us all and inspire us to be the best that we can be. Right now there is no unity in this world, even among the people who mean well. Some are fighting global warming, some are fighting hunger and poverty, and some are exploring and discovering new technologies and new facts about the human condition. But there is no grand master plan. There is nothing to unite us all to achieve a common goal. "When you set goals you should aim for the sky, not the ceiling. It is better to aim for the sky and miss than to aim for the ceiling and hit it". If that's the case then don't you think that we're not yet achieving our full potential here? We can do more. We could be better.