The value of values
Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947, Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City,

The value of values

By Myron

Why you need to define your values, right now

 7 min read in newsletter  

It is a fundamental neurological truth that your thoughts affect the physiological functioning of your body. Positive thoughts neurologically suppress negative ones. The ordinary mechanism of action is to evaluate and weigh all the factors that contribute to produce it, and at the same time, all the other factors that tend to prevent it. We do this by evoking the schemas of past experiences and keeping as many of the relevant ones in front of the mind for as long as possible. This enables those possibilities that are in the majority to surface and act as antagonistic reducers1 of those in the minority. If the possibility is supported by a desire for the event to take place, then there must also be considered other possibilities that involve the affectivity of fear that the event will not take place; these latent possibilities serve to bring into awareness those facts that the overpowering desire would have suppressed or inhibited. This mechanism is imperative for our survival in presenting us with the best alternatives when facing a life-or-death situation—say when we cross paths with a lion or find ourselves trapped in a burning building. The difference between optimists and pessimists is that, given the same social event or experience, the former’s desire trumps the antagonistic affectivities so that the fear of making a mistake which keeps the mind in suspense and attention is diminished in the presence of overwhelming desire, allowing an unconscious flow to replace the primary affectivity. This is the necessary condition for all actions to be performed with any degree of success. When you’re feeling happy and optimistic, your brain produces serotonin, which is thought to inhibit negative thoughts and opposing facts from past experiences. The English philosopher Herbert Spenser2 believed that weaker ideas are not entirely vanquished, but instead subsist in the subconscious, constantly exerting a pressure on the stratum of consciousness, the dominant ideas threatening to topple and overthrow even the most long-standing and well-entrenched ones.

Just like overwhelming desire overrides the apprehensions of the moment, long-term goals and ideas are realised when you have an instinctive interest that they could realise, or a deep-seated and uninhibited tendency they could satisfy. Our tendencies are our virtual perceptions. They are stored snippets of experience that have produced in us a positive, negative, or neutral reaction. They are our tastes, inclinations, and passions, but are also constituted by primordial tendencies that are governed by the instinct for self-preservation. Every physical and material condition in your life is a product and consequence of your tendencies. Your habitual tendencies are shaped by your character—that is, the way that you regard your personal life in relation to all life. Hillman3 defines character as the “deep structures of personality that are particularly resistant to change”. Your character could be frivolous, deep, open, restive, vulgar, and so on, depending on the personality types you identify with. Your values shape your character. They influence your sense perceptions, or rather they control the level of selective (or voluntary) attention from the sensory channels and how your experience varies with the sensory input.

With our innate predilection for categories, it’s no surprise that psychology has categorised humanity based on personality types. Eduard Spranger (1882 – 1963) was a humanist philosopher who theorised that human personalities fell into six value orientations: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious. Theoretical types are the idealists who thirst for knowledge above all else. When your value system is primarily theoretical, your energies are directed towards discovering and categorising knowledge, to seek eros—the unification of truth and experience. People who are economically minded are materialists who evaluate all actions based on their profitability. When your value system is economic, you will only gravitate towards those goals that provide a commensurate return on any investment of time or effort. If you value the aesthetic, you are drawn towards beauty and life experiences. If you are altruistic and feel a deep sympathy for the plight of your fellow man, then you will invest your time and resources in helping others. Politically minded people are individualistic and seek power, prestige, and position so that they may influence others. Finally, those who are religious hold spiritual endeavours in highest esteem. Personality types are never singular, nor are they consistent, given our scattered and fragmentary sense of self. Depending on the primary types we identify with, we adopt sets of categories that encapsulate our world view with regard to objects and phenomena. Conveniently for us, we have well-formed, ready made categories in the form of ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, libertarianism, populism, Christianity, Buddhism, and the myriad of other ‘-isms’ that rise and fall with the progress of civilisation and under which humanity lies “groaning, half crushed under the weight of the progress it has made.”4 G. W. Allport and P. E. Vernon were the first to formalise a personality-eliciting questionnaire based on Spranger’s categories. In a 1948 study, participants were first evaluated using the questionnaire to determine their primary personality types and then evaluated on their ability to recognise words flashed briefly on a screen by a device called a tachistoscope. These words were associated with values. For example, religious words like prayer, God, and purgatory; and political words like govern, citizen, and law. Subjects varied with their ability to recognise the words depending on their measured personality type, and the higher their score on a particular value, the faster they were able to recognise the word.

The ideas and goals that you have an instinctive interest in typically tend to be realised. Conversely, the things that spontaneously capture your attention reveal your character. You can only begin to understand what makes you tick by observing how you act and react in different situations. What satisfies or antagonises your tendencies is usually felt instinctively as pleasure or pain. According to William James, the idea to be sought must be first and foremost a reasonable one; that there are “laws of connection between our consciousness and our nervous system”; and that the necessary neurological changes occur when the object is made the centre of attention. This deliberate focussing of attention is what Ribot terms voluntary attention. “Just as a balance turns on its knife edge, so on voluntary attention our moral destiny turns.” Basically, you get what you focus on. More specifically, the outcomes that you direct your selective attention towards are usually fulfilled. Since the subconscious mind possesses knowledge and memories that we are not consciously aware of, it will exhibit remarkable sagacity in choosing the means employed to expedite the acquisitions and outcomes we desire.

Throughout history, successful people have used their values to achieve standards of excellence in their lives. Bruce Lee’s aim may have been to be the highest paid Oriental star in Hollywood5, but he sought through that, freedom, inner harmony, and happiness. Money for him was just the enabler; a symbol for the values symbolised. Being spiritually inclined, his end goal was to attain the space for serenity and the peace of mind that money would bring him in providing for his growing family. Oprah Winfrey’s mission in life was to be a renowned and respected teacher. Her love for people led her into the social life par excellence. Richard Branson, the consummate adventurer lives to experience the world and all that it has to offer. The poet Maya Angelou declared that her “mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.” Her altruistic and aesthetic inclinations shine through in her words, art, and life. Compassion is an often overlooked and underrated value. Suffering and pain are a part life and so hardships in some way, shape, or form are experienced by one and all. Recognising the struggles of others indicates a deeper connection with our own being. Values not only represent the outward world of wants, desires, and aspirations, they also reflect the core of our being—our inner life of hopes, defeats, triumphs, joy, and grief. So don’t talk about aims and goals. Aims and goals are merely the symbols, they change from day to day. Your desires must be in line with your tendencies and your character—the reasonable idea for you. Do not reject or suppress your desires for baser things like money as being amoral, mercenary, or avaricious, but dig deeper to uncover the needs that money will fulfil. If money will secure you independence and autonomy to create the things you love (say), then freedom is that which is symbolised by money. Now you can pursue freedom in all its forms that are meaningful for you. The same is true for other symbolic desires like sex (intimacy, love), fame (recognition, belonging, love), power (control over an unpredictable universe, acceptance, belonging). Beyond the superficial desire lies that which is necessary for us, but is buried under several strata of half-true and partially relevant values. Successful and more importantly, happier people, have plunged the depths of their desires and excavated their true values. It’s not easy to acknowledge our true desires and tendencies; to come face-to-face with our true character, but it is the necessary first step to reaching the meaningful; to getting to the truth. Only by embracing what lies at the depths of our personality and by developing our awareness of ourselves more fully can we transcend the egocentric and superficial wants whose pursuit only results in the affectivities of fear, self-pity, self-satisfaction, and competitiveness.

  1. The term antagonistic reductive was first used by the French historian Hippolyte Taine (De l’Intelligence, 1870). Although Taine’s observations and conclusions are subjective and subject to the idiosyncratic whims of the experimental psychology of the time, they nonetheless prove instructive processes of mind. ↩︎

  2. Herbert Spenser (1820 – 1903) is credited with the propounding several theories of Philosophical Radicalism, including the neo-Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. Equating societal advancements with intellectual and evolutionary superiority, his views gave moral justification to the practice of colonisation in the seventeenth century and were widely popular in England and America. Spenser also believed that war was beneficial to mankind as a whole because it enabled a more advanced and organised society to cull the herd and shape inferior societies for the betterment of the race. ↩︎

  3. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random House, 1996. ↩︎

  4. Borrowed from Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1935): “Mankind lies groaning, half-crushed beneath the weight of its own progress. Men do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods.” ↩︎

  5. Bruce Lee’s definite aim↩︎

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