Almost daily I face what I see as the key misunderstanding between how to lead your life to everything you want from it and how to follow what society tells you to. If you’re lucky the latter will bring you what you want. You’re guaranteed to produce for others, but you may never create what you want for yourself.
By contrast, the former — leading your life based on your values, meaning, and purpose, which are based on your emotional reactions (what motivates you, how you motivate others, etc) — will always lead to a rewarding life, always great by your standards, no matter how things turn out.
People call growth progress and by growth they mean the material outputs of society, which may be GDP, the height of the tallest building, population, the speed of the fastest plane, the number of patents issued, etc.
People take for granted that because we have televisions and cell phones we live better than people thousands of years ago. Not understanding why they connected cell phones with emotional reward or happiness, they end up concluding they should work harder and make more money to make the world better. Rather, they don’t conclude that life direction; they just never question it and live accordingly.
An alternative perspective
Understanding how things acquire value lets you understand what has value to you and why, and why you don’t have to value what other people suggest you do. My model led me to understand how things acquire value. Things that change your life, meaning you do things differently than you would have otherwise, have value. Something that leads you to behave differently motivate you — the definition of motivation — meaning they influence your emotions. By contrast, it’s hard to say something that doesn’t influence you or your decisions has as much value as something that does.
Understanding your emotions and emotional system is how you learn about your values, meaning, and purpose.
What emotions does a dollar bill evoke in you? How about a tall building?
Yes, these things have value, but compare that emotion to seeing a close family member. What characterizes the emotions — are the emotions of seeing a skyscraper or a dollar bill enduring and complex? Are they worth sacrificing the others for?
I think some people have never asked themselves these questions and therefore just follow what others tell them have value — Coca-Cola, long hours at work, and so on.
Ask yourself this, and seriously think about it: How is your life better than a hunter-gatherer’s who lived fifty thousand years ago?
The research I know of says they lived as long as we do, ate a more varied and healthy diet, worked less, had tighter communities, and didn’t have many of the diseases our ancestors picked up from animals.
My point isn’t that we should return to that condition since it won’t happen. People have this knee-jerk reaction to questions like that to say “Well, do you think we should all become cavemen?” and stop thinking. It’s sad of them to do stop thinking like that, because we can learn from people who live differently than we do.
My point is that questioning the values society expresses loudest — stocks rising is good!, we must defend ourselves from attack!, the other candidate will destroy us! — leads you to understand yourself.
How would you measure your happiness? How would you measure a country’s? How do you think your life or your country would change if you measured your happiness instead of just your investments and bank account? We can measure stock prices and bank account balances easily so we do, often criticizing subjective measures, like how you feel, emotionally or physically.
But dollar values aren’t the same as value. Value, along with meaning and purpose, are inherently subjective. To criticize using them as some measure of progress as opposed to objective measures like stock prices, inflation, and house prices reverses the point of value, meaning, and purpose. What’s the point of the objective measures if they motivate people to forget about and work against their subjective values, meaning, and purpose? Why work longer hours, sacrificing your time, to make your life miserable? Why call building tall buildings progress if using them makes people miserable?
Why am I writing all this?
I’m writing all this because of a conversation I had with friends living abroad. They were born and spent most of their lives in the United States. Living abroad they described how it would be difficult to return to the U.S. since it’s so much like a third world country. If you look at material prosperity, that statement doesn’t make sense. They were talking about infrastructure — we were on an air-conditioned, quiet, convenient subway where they could check their email on free wireless; they told me about their almost free health care and conversations with Americans who claimed the U.S. had the best healthcare in the world while skipping getting healthcare because it cost too much.
The American people don’t seem to question the values motivating the few decisions they make that affect their society — voting, for example — all too often acting out of reactivity or values they adopted not because they care about those values but because someone else pushed them on them for their own purposes — like politicians looking for votes or companies that sell unhealthy food trying to get them to eat it.
The conversation I had was a few days ago and it was a dialog so I feel like this post isn’t as tight as others. I’m trying to explore some far-reaching concepts I expect to return to in later posts with more clarity.
I hope reading this post gets people to think about their values and maybe change a few decisions to make their lives better by whatever standards they care about. If that means working longer hours to make more money to buy more Coca-Cola, great! It’s your life, not mine. If it means cutting back on acquiring stuff to spend more time with friends and family enjoying each other’s company, playing a few games, dancing and singing, out in the sunshine –if you like that, go for it, even if you sacrifice less important things in the process.