For the vast majority of time we spend on earth, the drive to create and protect value is more powerful than even the ultimate in biological motivation - "the survival instinct."
No one lives just to survive; we survive to live for value. The innate drive to create value - not to survive - has given us civilization, art, education, and even life itself. If the latter sounds strange, think of the people you know who chose to have children. Did they make that choice to survive or to experience heightened value? Is it survival instincts or the value of understanding that motivates scientists to investigate the origin of the universe and artists to construct brave new worlds for us to appreciate?
We do not merely live for value; we also die for it. Consider the combatants in the horrendous beach assaults of World War II. Both sides knew going in that 90% of the first assault wave and front-line defenders would become casualties. Yet the majority of attackers and defenders faced almost certain death or wounding for one overriding reason: to protect what they most valued. Even the kids who seemed to have little at home to protect fought to preserve their self-value, which would have plummeted to nothing if they viewed themselves as cowards.
Few among us would not give their lives to protect what we most value. Would you not jump in front of a bullet to save your children? Would you not consider eating a bullet for failing to protect them? How many millions throughout history have died for beliefs, causes, and persons they valued? How many have killed themselves from loss of value? The killer moods -- resentment and despair -- begin as soon as value-creation declines. Abuse of loved ones rises from the ruins of value systems. So do addictions and self-destructive behaviors.
Virtually all our accomplishments occur through value-creation and nearly all our failures owe to devaluing more than we value. For instance, who is more likely to lose weight, the person who values health or the one who devalues her body? Who is more likely to succeed with fewer mistakes, the coach who values the skills and cohesiveness of the team or the one who fears losing? Who will do a better job and feel enriched by her work, the employee who values her contribution and co-workers, or the one who devalues his job, peers, or managers? Think of the people you know who seem to live meaningful lives. They have enormous energy to do whatever is important to them. You would probably describe them as strong, flexible, caring, committed people. Less easy to see is how their meaning and purpose come from emotional investment in what is most important to them.
The Value Meanings of Emotion
All emotions carry value meanings, with built-in motivations to behave according to one's personal values. The weaker emotions mark less important levels of value - we want vacations to go well and get disappointed if they don't. The most intense normally go to the deepest values - we're impassioned about protecting children and devastated by loss of a loved one.
By and large, the value component of emotions keeps us in line with our deepest values, without having to stop and think about them. We may foolishly insist that our children "think through the consequences of what they do," but the fact is, we hardly ever do it ourselves. To keep the majority of behavior within the boundaries of personal values, we rely on an automatic, low-grade discomfort, which the mere impulse to violate a deeper value stimulates.
The danger comes in blaming this important internal signal - however vague or pronounced the discomfort - on "stress" or circumstances or other people. Then it loses the capacity to motivate beneficial behavior and becomes, instead, something to numb or avoid. Ignoring the value message of emotions leads to resentment, depression, or anxiety and forces us to live as mere shadows of ourselves.