laser toyI’m pretty sure that if I was a cat, I’d find laser toys extremely frustrating. You just chase a spot of light, and even if you put your put your paw right down on it, you can’t catch it. The game could go on for hours, but you’d never win. You can’t even make progress, because chasing games are all or nothing; either you catch it or you don’t, and you can’t catch a spot of light. But my kitten doesn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she thinks it’s a delightful game, and she prefers the laser beam to any of her other toys. When I turn it on, she trills with joy and proceeds to chase it all around the room, bouncing off the walls and doors as it seems necessary.

I admit that sometimes I do a mean thing to my cat. I hold the laser toy with one hand and “catch” the light with the other hand, while turning the laser off so that it looks like I actually did capture it. Then I turn the laser back on as I open my hand. My kitten is completely baffled as to how I can catch the laser light when she can’t. But if I alter the trick and turn the laser off when she puts her paw on the spot of light, and then congratulate her on her victory, this is unacceptable. She will stare at me accusingly, because I clearly cheated. I tried to end the game prematurely, and she wants to keep playing.

Here's a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can't get good ones of her when she is playing.

Here’s a picture of my kitten not playing, because I can’t get good ones of her when she is playing.

As far as she’s concerned, the goal isn’t to actually catch something, anyway. Running around and smashing into furniture is the whole point. Lasers are so much more fun than spiders, because when you catch a spider, it dies and stops running, and when you eat it, it disappears. This ruins the game, and it’s not cool. The other day, she found a frog. I’m not sure how it got into the house, but it did, and my cat found it. She was very pleased for a little while, but the frog wasn’t a fun toy because he kept playing dead. Whenever she started to walk away, he moved and caught her attention again, but when she stared right at him, he held perfectly still. When she lightly batted at him with her paw, politely requesting that he hop away so that she could chase him, he continued to hold still, and if she batted at him a little more forcefully, he actually slid along the floor. It was no better than playing with a fabric toy, so that’s what she did, and the frog got away.

I remember one time hearing about a study that said that people were happier when working towards a goal than they were after achieving a goal. On the one hand, this seems like one of those studies that was completely unnecessary and a waste of funding, because I think most people find that conclusion almost as obvious as my cat does. On the other hand, it’s also a very interesting point. But in the life of a human, I’m not sure if it’s always true. I think it depends upon the nature of the goal. Right now, I’m looking for a job and an apartment, and I find it hard to believe that my life won’t be cooler once I’ve acquired those things. But there are definitely some goals that are more fulfilling to strive for than to accomplish, and anything that exists solely for entertainment purposes falls into that category. If you’re glad or relieved to finish a book or a movie or a game, that probably means you weren’t really having that much fun with it. That’s why it’s so hard to resist watching several episodes of a TV show back-to-back. That’s why it isn’t frustrating to play a computer game where, every time you win, you just start another level that’s more or less exactly the same as the previous one.  That’s why most successful books and movies have sequels, and why those sequels sell even if they aren’t nearly as good as the original.

Glypha IIIBut there’s still some sense of achievement in getting a high score in a favorite game or finishing a long book or a jigsaw puzzle or craft project, no matter how much fun it was. I think most people are goal-oriented, even if the process is what they really enjoy. I think that people need small victories along the way in order to stay interested and motivated, regardless of whether the goal is something important and meaningful, like learning a useful skill, or something fun and comparatively trivial, like a game. This is one difference between the personalities of humans and animals; people like to work towards goals and animals live in the moment and enjoy the game regardless of whether anything cool happens when they win. That’s all for the best, since human beings are the ones who are responsible for running the world and getting stuff done, while animals are either just trying to survive or just trying to enjoy life. (Depending upon whether or not they’re domestic, because domestic animals generally have the survival part taken care of for them) The human way of living is a lot more purposeful, but it’s also a lot less fun.