[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Most of our greatest life questions and quests involve meaning and values. What things are meaningful and why? What are our values? What is important and why?
Looking up words like meaning, values, and importance in the dictionary or Wikipedia doesn’t help. At least one dictionary online gave me back “What is the meaning of life?” as an example use of the word meaning, hardly helping.
Let’s talk about value, meaning, etc for a moment, then I’ll answer where they come from.
We usually have a general feel for what has meaning — things like family, community, and health, for example.
But why do some things have meaning and others don’t? You could say because those things are important, but that answer just substitutes one mysterious word for another. Some say those things make life worth living or something about what those things do for you, but that answer doesn’t explain why those things. If all you need is something to have value to give life meaning, you could choose to give anything meaning. Besides, we feel like things have value for reasons prior to us — that is, they don’t have value for our sakes.
Value and meaning keep generally consistent, but the values and meanings of some things do change — over time, in different cultures, for different people. Something’s value seems intrinsic to the thing, but its value can differ. How much you value something seems not a matter of choice, but sometimes it does change. For example, if you decide not to value a friend as much anymore, you can stop spending time with them and after enough time you will value them less.
So where do value, meaning, and importance come from? It turns out understanding these concepts comes from another direction. Understanding emotions and your emotional system illuminates them.
The Model greatly helps us understand meaning, as well as value, purpose, importance, and related concepts. Recalling the Model,
I’ll explain how emotions and your emotional system determine what in life has meaning, value, and importance. They give you purpose.
If you perceive something but it doesn’t affect your life it has no meaning to you. It may have meaning to others, but we know that different things have different meanings to different people. If something does affect your life beyond you merely perceiving it, it affects your motivation. In other words, it affects your emotions. To understand meaning, value, and importance, learn to understand your emotional system.
Your emotional system evaluates your environment and decides what to do about it based on metrics you inherited from your ancestors in the form of your mind’s wiring.
According to the Model, things themselves have no inherent or absolute value. They have the value of the emotions they evoke in you. In the Model saying something has value or meaning only makes sense from someone’s perspective, never in an absolute sense.
In other words, describing its value describes a property of your mental state, not the thing, so value changes from person to person and in the same person over time. When you were born little meant anything to you beyond your mother. Now many things do. Their meaning changes as you change.
For example, a dog you barely notice while you hurry to a meeting has little to no value to you. To its owner, it may have great value. If you stop to pet it and realize how cute it is it takes on new value to you. If it bites you its value changes to you. Same dog. Your interaction changes and therefore you evaluate it differently. The owner has different beliefs and behaviors with the dog and therefore different emotions. So the dog means something different or has different value to them.
The dog remained the same dog, yet its value and meaning changed. Why? Because the interaction with people changed the emotions they felt.
If you think about it, the connection between emotions and value, meaning, purpose, and importance explains the properties of those things described above. Emotions change, but mostly not through your direct choice. But if you change your environment, beliefs, or behavior, things’ values will change too. Things that have long-term value tend to evoke long-term emotions; the same for any other characteristic. a thing’s value depends strongly on how you perceive it, which is subject to your beliefs.
Also, the feeling that value, meaning, etc seem outside of you makes sense as you inherited your emotional system and it evolved specific purposes related to keeping you alive and passing on your genes. Moreover, we all have similar emotional systems — they evolved the same for about a billion years, diverging only in the past few tens of thousands of years. All cultures value family, community, health, learning, good food, … things that helped our ancestors survive.
Drilling down to greater detail, a thing’s meaning and value take on the characteristics of the emotions affecting it. Your child’s value will be long-term, intense, complex, and pleasurable to you most of the time because your child evokes emotions with those characteristics most of the time. At any given moment your child may evoke emotions with other characteristics, in which case you’ll value your child differently at that moment.
Tonight’s dessert, by comparison, will likely have a short-term, intense, simple, and pleasurable value because it evokes emotions of those characteristics. The same dessert may have different characteristics to the chef who made them.
All things take on value the same way — through your perception of them and the rest of your environment, subject to your beliefs, evaluated by your inherited metrics, calibrated through your life experiences and growth, subject to your (beliefs about your) abilities, influenced by what you think you can achieve through your behavior.
As I’ve said before, the Model, like any model, simplifies things. Today’s post describes meaning, value, importance, and so on within the framework of the Model. As you change my Model for your purposes, your understanding of the concepts may change, but I expect they’ll retain emotions and your emotional system at their core.
So if you want to understand the most important things in life you have to understand why things are important and how, which leads you to understanding emotions and your emotional system.
The greater your self-awareness, the more clearly you understand why and how something has the meaning it does.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book