Review: What Makes us Tick

Simon Smart reviews the latest book from Australia's leading social researcher Hugh Mackay

There can be no doubt that entering the “room of mirrors” from time to time can be good for us, and who better to lead us on that painful but necessary journey of self-discovery and awareness than Australia’s leading social researcher, Hugh Mackay.

Mackay’s latest book, What Makes Us Tick? – the Ten Desires that Drive Us, represents something of an extended collective session on the psychologist’s couch, learning of the things that lie at the root of what we do. As far as therapy goes, the experience is enlightening, and, I dare say, a whole lot cheaper than the real thing.

Mackay is a deft hand at describing the major shifts in our culture, and the impact these changes have on individual lives and communities. For years we have been turning to him to make sense of our own behaviour, along with that of our aging parents and that odd looking teenager on the bus with the piercings and tattoos. 

What makes us tick? identifies ten key ‘social desires’ linked to personality, identity, relationships, and that influence our approaches to love and friendship, family, work, and community. Even a glance at the chapter titles reveals subjects that immediately resonate, like the desire to belong, the desire to connect, the desire for love, and the desire for control. And while they are dealt with individually here, Mackay is clear that these desires are intertwined and intricately related. The frustration of one can lead to overcompensation in another.

Mackay’s descriptions inevitably lead us to recognise ourselves in the pages along with those with whom we live and work and play. For each desire, he identifies a shadow—the dark side of desire that if overplayed or left unchecked can lead to damage to ourselves and to others. The desire for ‘my place’ for instance, is frequently expressed as territorialism that Mackay says must be ‘tempered with generosity and compassion’ if a civilised society is to be maintained.

There is much Mackay wisdom to be shared here—well researched with a touch of the grandfatherly fireside chat. He has something to say about the contemporary hunger for community and he urges planners and governments to create places and spaces that encourage human interactions. He offers a sober assessment (Mackay is no Luddite) of technology and the online world. He speaks of a three-fold need of connection—with our inner selves, with others, and the natural world—each of which may suffer when we allow the virtual to replace the physical.

He urges us to find creative expression in the arts as a means of connecting with ‘who you are.’ He is at pains to illuminate the danger of focusing on happiness above wholeness. Mackay thinks that when people talk about wanting to be happy they are thinking of a more narrow and vacuous feeling related to the desire for control. He urges parents to wish for something more substantial for their kids than happiness, and he quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald,

  “The redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure,’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”  

Those charged with giving an account of the phenomenon of human behaviour can sometimes describe humanity like they would a passing parade viewed from a balcony safe above the throng. Their observations are those of detached objectivity, but the dignity and individuality of the lives they describe can be missing. No such charge could be made of Mackay. He clearly has a deep respect and warmth for his subjects. Mackay thinks that all people are “endlessly fascinating” (30) and that there is much to learn from offering the gift of attentive listening. It’s a gift that he has clearly given to many over the course of a long career.

The desire for love, says Mackay, is the deepest of all our desires that when freely given offers the most enduring contribution to a better world. He doesn’t hide the allusions to 1 Corinthians 13 when he writes that love is about action as much as feeling and true love seeks no recognition or reward. He even borrows the language of the Apostle Paul when he surmises that when it’s authentic, love is constant and faithful and perseveres.

Mackay is not a believer himself, but I can imagine his research on contemporary life being easily employed to spice up Sunday Sermons. Anyone who holds to a Christian outlook would find strong connections here with Mackay’s take on the world. At the very least, his work emphasises again that Christian faith has something to say about every aspect of the human experience.

The desire to be taken seriously, for example, is the only one of the ten here that Mackay singles out and declares to be sovereign. ‘Take me seriously’ is a cry from the heart that underlies so much human behaviour, he suggests. It’s about a deep yearning for ways to be acknowledged as unique and significant. The preachers will want to remind us of the belief that every person is a unique creature made in God’s image—a life that is precious beyond all measure and utterly unrepeatable.

Pulpits, where they still exist, will echo Mackay’s assessment of the desire for control—the one he says is the most likely to frustrate and disappoint us. The bewildering rate of change of modern life has created an epidemic of anxiety in the West according to Mackay. No doubt, in response, congregations will likely hear reminders of Jesus’ sermon on the mount and his call to “not worry” about tomorrow, but find peace in him.

Similarly, when Mackay discusses our desire for connection, he urges self-knowledge, good relationship with others, and interaction with the natural world.

Mackay talks about the natural world and its “beauty, its grandeur, its ugliness, its life-giving richness and life-sapping desolation.” He describes humans as creatures who experience love, joy, satisfaction, triumph; …but he also knows that we are “heirs to sadness and despair; we disappoint ourselves and each other; we are flawed, frail and conflicted; our plans go awry; not all our dreams come true; we die.” (125/6) Mackay well-knows the Christian response, different from his own, to these dilemmas. He is happy to offer them without judgement and people of every faith and none will find something here to appreciate.

Yet it is in the one area most directly related to religious faith—the desire for something to believe in—that the believers themselves will find most inadequate. Mackay clearly sees religious faith as mostly being about comfort, consolation and inspiration for those more fragile of the species looking for meaning and purpose in the face of mortal existence. For all his sincere respectfulness Mackay can’t hide his cynicism. What’s missing is the sense of a personal experience that all believers would want included in an assessment of their lives. It is here that Mackay finds his way to the balcony above the parade without much connection with those below.

Refreshingly, he calls for an approach to religious belief that goes beyond the pot shots and easy dismissal characteristic of the Richard Dawkins, New Atheist camp. Mackay’s most personal appeal in the whole book relates to religious and non-religious people accepting each other with respect and empathy.

Mackay suggests that we (almost all) hold a common idea that love, charity, compassion, kindness, care for the sick and marginalised should be central to a healthy community, and that this sort of mutual obligation is “so self-evidently the basis of any civil society that they don’t require a religious impulse to animate them. (77/78) Yet I was left wondering about the likelihood of these ideals being upheld without religion. Self-confessed optimists like Mackay will be open to that possibility but human History might not offer much encouragement along these lines.

Mackay’s approach is that of description rather than judgement and that is a real strength of this book. But perhaps as he enters the latter stages of his career he could afford to offer us more in the way of direction and advice. This is what’s missing here, even if it’s true to Mackay’s noble philosophy of not ever trying to control anyone. Surely he has earned the right to tell it to us straight about what works and what doesn’t. Many readers would be happy for their therapy dollar to stretch that far, receiving wisdom gleaned across the decades.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics