Socrates thought it was the desire to be happy. He said that when we act badly, it's because we're only seeking short-term happiness. True happiness comes from good things, like helping others, taking care of ourselves and doing a good job.
So that's kind of a nice explanation.
From there, the theories went down hill. For instance, Nietzche thought everything we did was a power play. Even saying thank you, he thought, was one-upmanship. Our way of saying, "Who's the nice guy now, jack ass?"
Freud, meanwhile, thought we were motivated by cigars, or something.
I know this because I minored in philosophy in college, knowing that in the long run, it would make me happy. Like when I apply for that high-paying job as director of philosophy for a major corporation.
But I've always been interested in philosophy/psychology, especially if it's summed up in an article in Good Housekeeping or a 2-minute segment on the radio.
Recently, I heard a psychologist on the radio say we are driven by our desire to impress people.
"Of course," I thought. "It always has to be something embarrassing that drives us."
It can never be: Humans basically want to be nice.
It has to be: Humans are obsessed with appearing to be nice while in fact being great big phonies.
But I'm starting to see where this lady is coming from.
You see, when my three sons are around girls, it's like someone hits control/alternate/delete on their brains. They're completely reconfigured.
Gone are the children that wipe jelly on my best placemat...and then put it back in the drawer. Vanished are the boys who eat their boogers as morning snacks. Away are the kids who talk about Pokemon characters like they're close family friends.
In their place are three variety show performers.
The other day, my friend brought her daughter, niece and baby to our house for a couple hours. She had a doctor's appointment and her husband went out of town unexpectedly.
At first, I worried that the boys would play transformers and ignore their guests the whole time. But, boy, was I wrong.
When those girls got here, it was the Johnny & Richie Show.
Richie started playing chess on the computer. The game has different levels for opponents, starting with a monkey, which is the one both boys always choose because he's easiest to beat.
So Richie yelled over to the girls when they arrived, "Just a minute. I've just got to finish beating this monkey in chess!"
The girls looked up from taking stuffed animals out of their backpack.
"Okay," they shrugged.
Johnny spent a few minutes straightening up his room, then came out and asked, very seriously, "Can I show you some of my pets?"
He took them on a tour of his room.
"This is my pet frog," I heard him say. "And these are my guppies. That's the baby. He's really cute. And these are my shells. They're not pets. They're not even alive."
Apparently thinking the tour was over, the girls returned to their stuffed animals.
Johnny came in and said, "Um, I don't think you saw my beta fish."
They politely went back into his room.
Left, at last, to play with their bag of toy animals, the girls lined them up on the couch.
"Oh, I have stuffed animals," Johnny said. And ran into his room. Little did he know that I'd moved most of his toy animals to the playroom. He came down with an armful. But by now, the girls wanted to play outside.
Naturally, he spent the next ten minutes lifting up rocks to show them insects.
Well, it's just their age, I thought. All kids want to impress their peers when they're in grade school.
Then yesterday, we were at the pool and J.J.--just two years old--did the same thing. A little girl was swimming like a fish--diving over a toy alligator and going under water. And J.J., who just a few weeks ago considered getting his shoes wet to be a personal tragedy, squatted down carefully in the water, and submerged his whole...chin.
Next, he saw a smiling tow-headed toddler and, like a vaudevillian performer, showed her one water skill after another: mainly blowing bubbles and crawling in shallow water. She was laughing. He was laughing.
Then he took off running for land. I watched him go over to our bag. When he came back, he was dressed to impress. In other words, he was wearing floaties.
He looked at the little girl as if to say, "Why, yes, these are Spiderman floaties. My mom brought them for me in our pool bag, along with a plastic shark, which I'm not even afraid of."
Only, unbeknownst to J.J., he was staring at a different girl, who just happened to have blond hair like the first girl. That being the prevalent hair color of toddlers in the summertime.
But the new girl was busy playing with her mom and didn't see J.J. So he carried the waterwings back to the pool bag. He didn't seem disappointed or anything. Just, the floaties were a prop. And without an audience, he didn't really need them. (Except to float, I guess.)
This proves the point: We are driven from our youngest years to impress people.
And as adults, too. I often fret over what people might think.
Today, for instance, J.J. and Richie and I went to McDonald's. In the play area, J.J. fell and bit his lip. He was bleeding all over his shirt and mine, but after I cleaned him up and he calmed down, we proceeded with our Happy Meal agenda.
He was sitting on my lap in the dining area, dipping chicken nuggets in honey, when another mother in the play area approached the staff carrying a pile of napkins.
"A child fell and I cleaned up most of the blood, but you might want to mop the floor," she said.
Oh, my God, I thought. I forgot to go back to the scene of the injury. I did not clean up my own child's blood. I was mortified.
There I was, eating my Southwest chicken salad, as if the palace staff would clean up after us. I tried to catch her eye to say, "I am so sorry. I totally spaced out."
But she walked into the other room. As her friends left the restaurant, they glanced over at me, eating lunch with blood all over my shirt like a crazy lady. There was nothing to do but eat the boys' French fries in a nervous frenzy.
The impression I made on these strangers bothered me. Because seeing myself through their eyes, I saw an airhead. A familiar feeling, to say the least.
Young or old, we worry or are hopeful about the impression we make.
But maybe this isn't as bad as it sounds. Oh sure, in trying to make a good impression, we sometimes act like big shots rather than being nice to people. Or we focus on looking perfect instead of addressing our problems, which probably are similar to the ones of the people we're trying to impress.
On the other hand, impressing people can come in the form of telling a joke or sharing an interesting story or trying to discover a shared interest.
I guess it's just like seeking happiness--it has to be the right kind. Making a good impression should be about showing that you're a good person. (But not a goody two shoes.) That you're interested in things like, say, stuffed animals. But you're also interested in learning about what your friends like--guppies, for instance. Or that while you might not understand the point of swimming per se (when will you ever have to swim to work, for instance), you'll get in the water just to be a good sport. Or that you're responsible enough to clean up your child's blood and not just sit there eating French fries.
But at it's root, isn't impressing people a matter of making friends so that we'll have somebody to talk to and, thus, be happy?
When I was a kid, I tried too hard to impress people and wound up looking like a doofus. And I can see that my sons are following in my footsteps. The good news is, some people don't care if you're a doofus (which most of us are at least half the time.) They are your true friends. And they think your Spiderman floaties are awesome. (Or at least, that's the impression they'd like to make. Just to be nice.)