How important is it to make things important?
Posted Apr 25, 2009
Value is "the human cobweb," as Jerome Kagan aptly put it. To know anything about spiders, you have to understand the one thing that makes them unlike all other insects: They make cobwebs. To know about human beings you have to grasp our ability to make things important to us - above and beyond survival utility - and worthy of appreciation, time, energy, effort, and sacrifice. You must understand our ability and our drive to create value.
That's right, we create value. We have to create it because it doesn't exist in nature. You will never see a sign in a starry sky or under a sunset, a baby's face, lover's smile, work of art, or pile of money that reads, "Value this." All value is imposed on the world by the innate human drive to create it.
The experience of value gives a heightened sense of well being and vitality - you feel more alive looking at a beautiful sunset, feeling connected to a loved one, knowing genuine compassion for another person, having a spiritual experience, appreciating something creative, feeling committed to a cause or a group of people. Expansion of core value gives a greater sense of well being, authenticity, and connection to others. High value investment gives meaning, purpose, and vitality to life, with a stronger motivation to improve, create, build, appreciate, connect, or protect. It literally boosts the immune system and makes us physically healthier.
As value investment declines, so does meaning, purpose, vitality, and motivation. You begin to function more on automatic pilot with less interest and positive energy. If it declines too far, you begin to feel numb or depressed. If it declines drastically, you lose the will to live.
Emotions and Value
Our deepest values are protected by our strongest emotions, especially the negative ones. To know your deepest values, you need to understand your negative emotions. Unfortunately, the popular culture has made this task unnecessarily hard by focusing too much on how negative emotions feel, rather than what they are motivating you to do. This leads to misguided questions about whether your feelings are "valid" or "appropriate."
For years, psychologists and self-help authors have obscured the meaning of emotions by emphasizing attitudes and cognition - what you think about what you feel. Some authors, myself included, have contributed to the confusion by stressing the importance of temperament and DNA. Though important, genetic influence - and to a lesser extent attitudes - are fairly stable over time and cannot account for feelings that change moment-by-moment throughout the course of a day. (Meaning is not in our genes, though the desire to create it seems to be.) And attitudes reflect merely what we believe about our emotions, not what they mean about us. For example, some of my court-ordered male clients come to treatment with the attitude that it's a woman's job to do housework, and they believe that they resent their wives for not wanting to do what they "should" do. In reality their resentment does not tell them about their wives' behavior; it tells them that they are failing to be the compassionate husbands they want to be, a point totally missed by those who focus on attitudes and anger-management. Changing the attitude without showing the client how to be the compassionate partner he really wants to be will further alienate him from his deepest values and make anger more necessary for protecting his fragile ego.
The Value Meaning of Emotions
The emotions that carry the most intense value meaning are guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness and, if any of those are blamed on someone else, resentment and anger. Whenever we lose something we value, we feel sad. Whenever we violate or ignore our deepest values, we experience guilt, shame, and anxiety - not as punishment - but as motivation to be true to those values that make us who we are. Focus on the feeling rather than the motivation is like focus on the sound of the smoke alarm rather than the putting out the fire. The only sensible question relevant to negative emotions has nothing to do with your childhood or style of emotional expression. The only sensible question relevant to negative emotions is, "How can I be true to my deepest values at this moment?"