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Balancing the Mechanism and Vitalism in Life

Angela Nguyen

There has always been a discussion between the mechanistic and vitalistic views in the domain of psychology. In the mechanistic view, processes occur in a specific and determined sequence. The vitalistic view has been more debated, but the idea is that there is something in living organisms that separates us from inanimate objects. There is something greater than human that influences who we are and the processes we experience.

Sometimes, life can feel a little mechanistic to me. It almost feels like the first part of life was spelled out for me in a sort of step-by-step instruction manual. The first step was to go to school, all twelve years of it. After getting a high school diploma, most of us are then expected to go off to study for another four years at some university. At the all-knowing age of 18, we are asked to find an area of focus, and to pursue this path in order to make a meaningful contribution to society. These seemingly standardized expectations set me up for a very matter-of-fact way of going about life.

My goals have always been chronologically focused around school. My life seemed to play out in little sections, four years at a time. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do and what the end-goal was. Get a high school diploma, get a bachelor’s degree, and then get a doctorate. But what comes after that? Of course you can specialize and continue with education, but there’s no diploma for finishing life. This part of the instruction manual gets a little ambiguous, and the steps become less and less clear. All of a sudden, life doesn’t feel so mechanistic anymore.

Now, I am thrown into the world and demanded to look at life from a vitalistic approach. All this time I’ve been given instructions on what to do or where to go, and suddenly all of that has disappeared. Life had felt so mechanistic because everything before had been sectioned off into separate time frames. But life isn’t just a bunch of organized memories. Life is a continuum. All the moments that I had experienced before interact with each other and influence who I am today and where I want to be in the future. It seems daunting, to reflect and calculate what the sum of your existence has lead up to, but that is the beauty of the vitalistic approach. There is no right or wrong path. Whatever you choose, it is meant to happen for some reason.

Both mechanistic and vitalistic processes occur in life, and both are equally important. The mechanistic view can be important in setting goals and getting things done. When you isolate a goal, it can be easier to focus on it and determine the most effective and direct way to meet that goal. For example, you might set a goal to get an A in your neuro class, or you might want to reach 100 adjustments in clinic by next month. With objective goals like this, you can plan out exactly what you need to do and the time you need to dedicate to them.

The vitalistic view also plays an important role when setting goals. The mechanistic view allows you to create little snapshot goals in life, but applying the vitalistic view can help with the “why” of what you are doing. For example, do you want an A in your neuro class because you want to be the most informed and knowledgeable clinician for your patient? Do you want to reach 100 adjustments because you want to be the most skilled chiropractor? Whatever your reason is, it is important to set an intention when creating your goals. Keeping the bigger picture in mind can help you stay motivated while you work toward what you want.

This article first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Lifelines, the Life West student magazine.

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