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Why? vs. What for?

It occurred to me that goal-oriented people should ask “what for?” (and then “how?”) rather than “why?” It happened like this:

An acquaintance has rheumatoid arthritis. Her joints–fingers, wrists, and knees–are swollen, deformed, and painful. She complained about the ineffectiveness of various treatments she had undergone. (In case you didn’t know, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease made worse, if not caused, by chronic inflammation.) I asked her then whether her diet was anti-inflammatory (most calories from fat, with little to no grains) or pro-inflammatory (most calories from carbohydrates, with lots of grain products). As was to be expected, her diet was pro-inflammatory–mostly bread, pasta, pastry, sugar. I advised her to try eliminating at least the grains and sweets to see if that helped.

More than a week later we met again at her sister’s home. She (the woman with arthritis) told us that she did eliminate the grains and sweets, and after a few days her joints hurt much less and she could walk easier. She asked me, “Why is that?” Before I could reply, her sister served her coffee (I had tea) and asked her, “Do you want sugar with it?”

“Yes” (she looked at me sheepishly).

“How about a slice of cake?”

“Sure” (the same look again).

And thus she broke the good streak.

This made me think: Had she asked herself “what for?” after each of her sister’s offers, wouldn’t she stick to what was working? Take a look:

“Do you want sugar with it?”

“What for, to be hurting again?”

“How about a slice of cake?”

“What for, to be hurting again?”

I think “what for” questions are more action-oriented and forward-looking than “why” questions, such as “Why does the body work the way it does?” “Why do some foods promote inflammation?” “Why is her sister doing this to her?” (Also, “what for?” feels more assertive than “why?”)

I apply this thinking to all activities (e.g., “What do I do this exercise for?”). This question, in the case of an exercise, makes me think hard about “whether, when, and how” to do this exercise, and what I am going to get out of doing it. In other words, asking “what for?” tells me what effect or outcome I seek to achieve by following a particular course of action, while asking “why?” focuses on the causes. Would you like sugar with your coffee? Why – because you like your coffee sweet. What for – to make your joints hurt again. What do you think?

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