A Personal Essay: Funktionslust

A Personal Essay: Funktionslust


“So go ahead, you can laugh all you want
But I got my philosophy
And I trust it like the ground.”

— Ben Folds

My college sweetheart studied philosophy. When diploma time came, her far-flung relatives dutifully made their way to upstate New York. They came not only for the graduation ceremony, of course, but also for the attendant celebratory lunch at one of the blue collar city’s few “fancy” restaurants. This was a leafy-exteriored, double-upholstered joint that clung to the edge where campus met ghetto, and whose business model seemed shaky indeed — outside of the establishment’s assigned role in such academia feast days as Parents’ Weekend, homecoming, graduation, and après theater dinner-drinks at the close of the somewhat infrequent Broadway-style productions mounted at the university theater up the hill.

We sat down. The congratulatory preliminaries were given their due. Selections were made from a provincial/aspirational menu that, with some relief, did not compel sniggering from the well-heeled Chicago relations.

It was then that one of my girlfriend’s aunts took in a long, deep, anticipatory inhale. She was warming up for some serious discursive swinging.

“So,” trilled the aunt. Her pupils sighted straight down her nose. Her head canted back like a howitzer finding an elevation before firing. “You’ve been studying philosophy for four years now,” she went on. “And all this time I’ve been waiting for you to be able to tell me this.”

My college sweetheart raised her eyebrows. The aunt let the question roll.

“What’s your philosophy?” she asked.

Here is what the woman assumed: that the study of philosophy, even here at the undergraduate level, was to engineer a coherent and original response to the Big Questions of existence. She did not seem to take kindly to her niece’s follow-up explanation: that the purpose of the study of philosophy is instead to begin to understand and unpack those Big Questions in the first place.

In other words, philosophy is more about asking and wrestling with far-reaching queries on the subjects of ethics, aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology than actually answering those queries. (Or at least that’s how my girlfriend, who was markedly more intelligent than me anyway, later put it, in private, and well removed from the influence of aunts.)

So hopefully that serves to acknowledge that I have been left with some primitive command of the philosophy basics. I understand — and presumably the aunt now does as well — that there is not one discrete and explicit philosophy for every philosopher.

But all the same, I will confess that at the present stage of life I would probably take a stab at trying to answer the aunt’s question. That is to say, I do have a philosophy.

This philosophy is limited in scope and of dubious originality. It’s nothing to found a Movement upon. And removed from the present conditions of life and wisdom in the United States, it’s something that probably could be dismissed as not much more than common sense. But all the same I think it’s a simple, practical, utilitarian approach to at least one big question: the one about how we can be happier and live better lives.

And I owe it all to a deceased polar bear named Gus.

gus - polar bear - funktionslust essay - photoGus was a reliable audience draw in the Central Park Zoo. I only encountered him in the early to mid 1990s, when I lived for a short number of years (it wasn’t much of a life) in New York City’s second-least-glamorous borough.

Gus was abundantly fed. His medical condition was zealously monitored and safeguarded. His habitat was stratospherically more airy and commodious than the average city dweller’s. And this polar bear enjoyed the distinction of being stud for two females of his species.

But Gus was miserable.

What does misery look like in a polar bear? In Gus’s case, misery manifested itself with one highly specific behavior. Gus swam around his Manhattan “polar habitat” with an almost unceasing pattern of precise figure eights. He would slide into his chilled water tank off that faux iceberg, kick off the visitor’s viewing window with this rear paw, glide and spin, climb back onto that faux iceberg using this forepaw, and repeat. And repeat again. For nearly twelve hours a day, every day, Gus plied an impressive, OCD backstroke.

It was some kind of spectacle. Where a common complaint about zoos may be that the animals are too often resting or engaged in some other activity out of the sight of ticket buyers, Gus at least could nearly always be counted on to show up and do his thing. This was a circumscribed yet legitimate display of real polar bearness. You sensed Gus’s strength and physical endurance. You marveled at the animal tenacity of all that swimming. Why, this was exactly the kind of stick-to-itiveness a member of this species would have to exhibit in order to pursue retreating ice across open seawater for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers each Arctic summer!

And yet this was not normal behavior for a polar bear.

In 1994, zoo officials became concerned enough to take action. Gus, they speculated, may have been having a nervous breakdown. They hired a psychologist for Gus. Naturally Gus’s being in therapy prompted about a bazillion jokes: here was yet another Manhattanite who needed a shrink. The fact that the psychologist was from California didn’t help.

bears who swim too much - gus - funktionslust - 1994 New York Times - screenshot

One of the next times I visited the Central Park Zoo (see? I told you I didn’t have much of a life at the time) an interpretive exhibit had sprung up alongside Gus’s tank. The exhibit outlined some of the strategies the zoo’s consultant wildlife headshrinker was taking with Gus in an attempt to relieve the polar bear of his apparent ennui.

A rallying cry of animal rights activists is that animals don’t belong in zoos. One even wrote, in a 1981 New York Times opinion piece, that “The Central Park Zoo is a horror that should never have been created.” The design of the zoo was, at that point, in the infamous “animal prison” style: little more than a series of barred cages. Contemporary, pre-Gus polar bears were known to do little more than rub their faces against the iron slats confining them.

By 1988, worries about the animals’ quality of life loosened the city’s purse strings. The entire joint was refurbished and upgraded. The goal was to provide the animals a more natural setting. And so Gus’s simulacrum of the northern latitudes, with his swimming tank and rock piles, was created.

But the faux Arctic stylizations could not keep Gus from the blues. Life as a display animal — even one with all the basics of survival abundantly at hand — continued to be, at some deeply cognitive level, unfulfilling. Gus’s existence was unstimulating and unsatisfying to his body, mind, and, my fellow Californians might especially venture, spirit.

Gus’s psychologist took an approach centered around the concept of pleasure. He theorized that Gus was being denied a specific and critical sort of pleasure — one required by his entire system for proper mental balance. In other words, this kind of pleasure played really no different role than an SSRI medication like Prozac or Celexa would to a human patient with severe depression. In the absence of this pleasure, Gus was being plunged into neurosis.

So what’s this kind of pleasure? The concept is so esoteric that English language doesn’t have a word for it. So we have to turn — where else? — to the linguistic tradition best suited for philosophy: German. That, of course, is the tongue that brought us zeitgeist, schadenfreude, angst, wanderlust and many other spot-on expressions for ideas that we English speakers need a whole sentence or two to approximate.

The kind of pleasure that Gus was in ardent need of is called funktionslust.

Karl Bühler, a German psychologist, coined the term in 1924. Funktionslust is the pleasure a human being, or let’s say any higher organism, gets by engaging in activity itself — and most especially in the exercise of its particular natural gifts or animal powers.

Funktionslust is an end in itself. It has nothing to do with what Bühler went on to define as endlust, the pleasure in attaining a certain activity’s goal. (Like completing a personal essay, which at this point you and I probably both suspect I may never do).

Gus was starving for funktionslust. Like his feats of swimming, he needed to actively employ all the superpowers of his species.

And so, together, Gus’s psychologist and zoo staff began to devise a series of mental and physical challenges. These would be custom tailored to exercise the same “core capacities” and talents that Gus would use in nature.

What’s more of a distinctly polar bear thing than raw strength — and sharp teeth and claws? So Gus’s handlers encased tasty salmon filets inside frozen blocks of ice. Gus would use his brawn and his curved points of prey-mauling keratin to try to dig them out. As another funktionslust delivery gimmick, Gus would be presented with novel fragrances. Polar bears have such a bloodhound-quality sense of smell that they can detect the meat of a whale carcass from up to twenty miles away. New and interesting scents would, it was thought, send Gus’s olfactory prowess leaping into new heights of stimulation. (Some of these novel fragrances included fox urine and both Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren cologne.)

In short order, Gus’s OCD swimming behaviors tapered down. They never completely disappeared. But the creative injection of funktionslust into his life was clearly therapeutic.

That brings me back to what I would call my philosophy about how we humans can live happier and better lives. We need to pay more attention to attaining our own funktionslust.

Funktionslust should be a household, everyday word. In work, in rest, and in play, we should be seeking it. Often, consciously or not, we already are. But we should be doing so even more. Like Gus, I think that to some extent our high levels of anxiety and depression are products of funktionslust’s relative dearth.

Civilization, I think, is in some ways growing wise to this. We can go back to Gus and the Central Park Zoo as an illustration of that fact. Have you noticed how the institution of the zoo has evolved over time? Especially recent time? I shiver at the depiction of Victorian era animal menageries, with enormous tropical mammals isolated, detained, and visibly bored to death in barren viewing pits. But go to a state-of-the-art facility like the San Diego Zoo today and you see habitats that, however imperfect, are far better accommodating to the physical and psychological health of the animals.

Zoos are still a starkly unnatural environment. But the environment we have created of cars, couches, cubicles, computers, and confining apartment block living is unnatural too. It’s a “human zoo” as Desmond Morris memorably called it in his 1969 book.

Civilization has not found a way to purge ourselves of such funktionslust traps as dreary commutes, time-sucking ordeals on customer service telephone lines, or the isolation of impersonal bedroom community townhome rentals. Yet at least mitigating trends of design, architecture, diet, and exercise are “in the air” — and giving rise to such things as mixed-use development, green space reserves in cities and towns, and new ways even for the socially insecure spaz to connect with other people not online but in actual “meatspace.”

I would not necessarily pose getting rid of cars, couches, cubicles, and the rest. I’m not some kind of Paleo Diet or Caveman Lifestyle utopianist. And God knows how many, for practical reasons, have to settle for jobs composed of unfulfilling, repetitive tasks. From data entry to grocery bagging, I’ve had many of those jobs myself that force you to be just engaged enough that you cannot even legitimately zone out. At least not without chemical aid.

My philosophy, such as it is, is that we must leaven our lives so we experience a greater degree of funktionslust. We need it. We need more physical activity. And we need to exercise more mental and emotional creativity.

Human funktionslust can take many forms. But I would direct you to take an anthropologically long view of the sorts of things that humans have done across history and across societies. Every human group has engaged in some kind of storytelling, from oral and written traditions to drama. Every human group has engaged in singing and dance. Every human group has had a tradition of games and sport. Every human group has created art. Every human group has made music. And then there’s the human superpower of socializing itself: debating, flirting, joking, teaching, learning. Praying together. Eating and drinking together. And, dang it, having sex.

To be healthy, balanced, and satisfied, we need to take care to do these same things our ancestors have done for tens of thousands of years. I would say we are built, we are formulated, to seek funktionslust. And without it we will get sick. In every sense of the word.

So if you’ve got that nagging sense that life is not what it should be, I think you should do more than just get a hobby and get some exercise. Find a way to use as many of your human superpowers as you can. Express yourself with your body and your mind. Get around other people.

We’re not as lucky as Gus, the depressed Central Park Zoo polar bear. There are no official, mustered ranks of benevolent zookeepers in the human zoo to get us on the right path. Be your own zookeeper. You probably are — but if you’re not already, go get after it. That animal of yours needs some funktionslust.

If, by any chance, a fervor for science fiction led you to come here and read this, let me also posit that the necessity for funktionslust is why I would argue that any form of the singularity that leads humankind into a virtual existence is doomed. Just about any “brain in a jar” that is made conscious of being so will only be led into a downward spiral of dysfunction and ill mental health that can only end in disaster. I think you can even read The Matrix trilogy as a plea for a more funktionslust-rich existence —  insofar as it posits a world of human psyches thrust into an artificial environment and yearning to be free.