In his new book What Makes Us Tick? The Ten Desires That Drive Us, Australian author, psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay looks beyond our physical need for shelter, food, and sleep to what he describes as the asociala desires, and of these, he rates the desire to be taken seriously as the most important.
Mackay, who has made a lifelong study of the attitudes and behaviour of Australians, describes What Makes Us Tick as the most ambitious book he's ever written. He's been thinking about it for about 15 years.
"But I waited to write it until I was a bit older," he chuckles. "I don't think I would have had the understanding back then.
"And it's not as if the desires that drive us have changed all that much over the years. It's just the way we pursue or express those desires that has been culturally determined by the social conditioning of different eras."
I ask him why he hasn't written a chapter about sex a surely one of the most powerful desires that drives the human species?
"I fully accept there are some ethereal desires for things like truth, beauty, justice, and then there are bodily needs that drive our behaviour," Mackay says.
"We must eat, drink, and sleep or as a species we could not survive Those are survival needs which produce powerful bodily urges that demand release.
"But there's much more to it than that. There are also our social desires, which give us our sense of identity within our tribes or our communities. Sex is a way of satisfying those desires, but in my view it's not a desire in itself."
But surely, I argue, sex is behind the way many of us present ourselves a even the kind of car we buy. This doesn't sway Mackay.
"The desire to be taken seriously is more powerful than sex when we seek to attract a mate," he asserts.
"We see it when people fall in love. They tell us how the person they love takes them seriously. When they fall out of love, they'll say things like a[approximately]He doesn't take me seriously anymore. He never listens to what I say'.
"Well, sex is inextricably woven into that. If a disgruntled husband says a[approximately]we don't have sex any more', he's really saying his partner no longer acknowledges his need. When the desire to be taken seriously is frustrated, it brings out the worst in us."
Mackay believes that some societies would have different priorities in the order of their desires.
"An indigenous community's desire to belong drives them more strongly than their desire to be taken seriously," he suggests.
"And societies express their desires differently through the ages.
"In the end, what makes us tick is not driven solely by one or another of our desires. All 10 are in constant interplay."
In relation to the desire to connect, Mackay says he has noticed a marked growth in narcissism in recent years.
"I guess my own profession (psychology) is partly to blame here," he admits.
"The a[approximately]positive psychology' movement has put a dangerous emphasis on the importance of personal happiness, rather than the good of the greatest number. Combined with the rampant materialism of the past couple of decades, this has fuelled narcissism, creating unhappiness.
"We have been teaching children that joy, pleasure and success are their natural birthright, without the understanding that courage and self-sacrifice are needed when things go wrong.
"Even apparent acts of altruism are not truly altruistic when the person is only thinking about making himself feel better, or raising his own profile," he says.
"The positive psychology movement tells us we grow through pain, yet we don't learn how to embrace hardship or defeat. We'd rather take a pill."
Mackay says we want our kids to be happy, but we would do better to want them to be whole. "It's crucial that we also support them through periods of disappointment and failure, and help them accept those aspects of life," he says. …